Kendall Graveman was constantly on the move in 2014. In an ideal world, Graveman’s 2015 season will about putting down some roots in Oakland.
There have been very few starting pitchers in professional baseball who have had a season quite like the one Graveman had in 2014. The Toronto Blue Jays’ 2013 eighth-round pick began the year with Low-A Lansing. By the end of the year, he was in the big leagues with the Blue Jays. Along the way, Graveman made stops with every Blue Jays’ full-season affiliate.
The Blue Jays had good reason for keeping Graveman moving up the ladder. The right-hander dominated the competition everywhere he pitched, and the Blue Jays constantly had to find new challenges for the Mississippi State alum. Now Graveman will be looking to carryover that success to his new organization, the Oakland A’s.
Graveman was one of four players the A’s acquired from the Blue Jays for All-Star Josh Donaldson in November. While major-league veteran Brett Lawrie may have been the headliner in the package the A’s received from Toronto, Oakland has high expectations for all four players, including Graveman, who they believe will help their 2015 team compete in the AL West.
Graveman was honored to be included in a trade for Donaldson.
“It was a humbling experience,” Graveman said during a post-FanFest media session on Monday. “Josh Donaldson, you couldn’t ask for anything more than what he did here. To be traded for a player who is the type of caliber player that he is was pretty special.”
The season Graveman put together in 2014 was pretty special, as well. The right-hander made 27 starts at four different levels. In 167.1 innings, he allowed just 147 hits, posted a 1.83 ERA and had a 115:31 K:BB. Graveman made four starts in Low-A, 16 in High-A, one in Double-A and six in Triple-A. He finished the year in the Toronto bullpen, allowing two runs in 4.2 innings of relief. Graveman struck-out four and walked none.
Graveman said his 2014 season even out-stripped his own high expectations of what he would be able to accomplish.
“For me, I set a goal for myself and I surpassed that goal for where I wanted to end up the year,” Graveman said. “It made me reflect on the people who had invested in me in my life that had helped me to get to that point. Coaches that had helped me along the way. My dad was a coach, my parents, players that I played with, the coaches at Mississippi State and what they did for me in college. It really made me realize that it didn’t happen in the 12 months time from when I was drafted to when I was called up. It happened long before that, the preparation.”
Although Graveman ended up spending a little more than a year with the Blue Jays, he got to know the entire organization.
“It was pretty unique to meet all of the people in the Toronto organization in one year and all of the players in just one year,” Graveman said. “In that respect, it was pretty fun to rise that quickly.”
A groundball pitcher with an excellent two-seam fastball coming out of college, Graveman added a new element to his pitching repertoire in 2014 when he started throwing a cut-fastball. He developed the pitch during a Florida State League start against the Miami Marlins’ organization, and that pitch helped to separate him from the rest of the groundball right-handers in the minor leagues.
“I have always thrown a two-seamer. That has always been my bread-and-butter. My fastball is always the two-seam,” Graveman said. “I didn’t really have anything that would go hard-in to a lefty, or hard-away from a righty. As a right-handed pitcher, that was something that I really needed. I started to develop the cutter or hard slider, depending on the day, sometimes it’s a little different. But it is something going hard in to the lefties. That kind of changed the kind of pitcher that I am.
“To see that transpire and learn how to pitch with that pitch and learn how throw it to both sides of the plate is something that I am still working on. I have been working on that hard this off-season just to try to master that craft. I think that is going to carry me in the future.”
Graveman will never be a strike-out pitcher, but the addition of his new pitch did allow him to post a respectable 6.19 K/9 in 2014. More importantly, Graveman’s aggressive approach and excellent command allowed him to post a sparkling 1.67 BB/9 and a 0.11 HR/9. Graveman had a 58% groundball rate in 2014. Graveman’s two-seam fastball lands in the 89-94 MPH range, while he throws his cutter/slider in the 86-91 MPH range. He also has a change-up that sits in the 82-84 MPH range.
Graveman knows that as a groundball pitcher, he will always be reliant on his infield defenders. He takes pride in working closely with his defenders and his catchers to get them in good position to make plays.
“That’s something where the better the camaraderie, the better you know them, the better they are going to be,” Graveman said. “My identity is that I like to get groundballs. If guys know that, they are more willing to be on their toes and make plays for me. Just for me to attack the ‘zone, the first three pitches, I’m looking to get a groundball. That’s no secret. I have always been that way. When I do that, that’s when I am at my best. When I do that, I trust that those guys are going to make plays behind me.”
In addition to adding a new pitch, Graveman learned a lot about the mental approach to pitching in 2014. He admits that he put too much pressure on himself the first time he was promoted a level last year. He allowed eight hits and four runs (two earned) in four innings in his first start for High-A Dunedin, one of his worst outings of the year. Graveman vowed after that start that he wouldn’t let nerves get the best of him again.
“I didn’t perform well. I tried to be somebody that I wasn’t as a pitcher,” Graveman said. “It really got me in trouble in my first start. It really put a lot of doubts in my mind like ‘why did I even do that?’ I made a vow to myself that every time I moved up, I was going to try and feel as comfortable as I can. Even if I couldn’t control anything else, just try to feel comfortable.”
Graveman put that approach to the test several more times last season, as he moved up through Double-A and Triple-A. By the time he reached the big leagues, Graveman says he had no nerves as he jogged out to the mound to face Yoenis Cespedes and the Boston Red Sox. Cespedes would be the only batter Graveman would face in that outing – and he got a hit – but Graveman wasn’t discouraged by the experience.
“I had a couple of days before I had another outing,” Graveman said. “I had to really fill myself with positive thoughts during that time. To get out there in Baltimore and perform was good.”
Learning to pitch in the big leagues wasn’t Graveman’s only challenge in September. He also had to learn how to be a reliever for the first time in his career. Graveman says that he wasn’t that comfortable coming out of the bullpen when he first got called up, but he tried to learn as much as he could about the role during his time with the Blue Jays.
“I thought that even if I didn’t get to throw that much, my main goal was to be able to learn how to pitch out of the bullpen,” Graveman said. “I don’t know what my career is going to entail. I don’t know where I will be. I was in Toronto’s bullpen and there was Casey Janssen and Aaron Sanchez was pitching out of their bullpen. There were so many guys who were there that I could pick their brains to find out what their daily routines were like and what daily throwing program they used, etc.
“I knew how to start because I have done that my whole life. I needed to learn how to be a reliever. I think that just added an extra element to my game and it’s something that I can do if need be this year.”
This spring will represent another first for Graveman, who will be competing for a spot in the A’s rotation during his first big league spring training camp. Graveman is one of several promising arms angling to join Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir in the A’s rotation. Whether Graveman lands in the A’s rotation, bullpen or in Triple-A to start the year, he is confident in the direction the A’s organization is taking.
“I trust what the Oakland A’s organization is doing and what Billy Beane has done this year and also has done in the past,” Graveman said. “His record and everything speaks for itself. He’s done a great job here.”