With four of the Oakland A's top-five selections in last June's draft highlighting the Beloit Snappers' starting rotation, there were several candidates to take the hill for last Friday's season opener. That honor ended up going to third-rounder Brett Graves, who helped put the Snappers in position for their first victory of the season.
The former University of Missouri standout worked his way out of trouble in the first inning of that start before settling down the rest of the way. Graves went five innings and allowed three earned runs on five hits, striking out three and walking two.
"That's the first time in my life I pitched on opening day, so it was pretty cool," said Graves, who pitched three years with the Tigers before signing as a draft-eligible junior. "The first game always has a different feel to it. It was a good experience, but any one of our starting pitchers we've got would have deserved to throw that night."
All things considered, it was an encouraging first outing for the 6'1'' right-hander, who will start another Beloit opener tomorrow night when his team plays its initial home game of the season.
"He had a really good first start," Beloit manager Fran Riordan said. "He was a little over-anxious in the first inning and left some balls up, but then settled down and put up four zeros in his five innings of work after the first inning."
As with most every pitcher entering the A's organization, Graves was asked to add a cutter to an already deep arsenal that includes a hard fastball, a curveball and a change-up. Gaining consistency and throwing all four of his pitches for strikes will test him during his first full season.
"I'm throwing more of a cutter or slider now and I'm also trying to mix my pitches more," Graves said. "In college, I had a good fastball and tried to lean on it a little more. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn't.
"I'm a fastball pitcher [first and foremost]. It's seemed like I've had that pitch and one of [my secondary] pitches in games, but I'd like to keep working to have all of those pitches going. In pro ball, you've got to mix those pitches and change speeds on the hitters, because there are some good ones in this league that are moving up and this is the first stop."
Gaining a better feel for his newest pitch, the cut fastball, will make Graves especially dangerous to hitters just starting out in the Midwest League.
"He's developing feel for the cutter and that could be an equalizer for him, especially against left-handed hitters," Riordan said. "If he can develop that cutter where he can start it down the middle and have it run in on left-handers, with how hard he throws, that's a really tough pitch to defend against [as a hitter]."
Graves put together a solid junior season at Mizzou prior to being selected as the 101st player overall in the 2014 draft. He went 3-6 with a 3.87 ERA in 14 starts, while striking out 64 batters and issuing only 18 walks in 93 innings. He led the Tigers in innings pitched, games started and strikeouts.
Following a scoreless one-inning stint with the AZL A's to begin his professional career, Graves was shipped out to short-season Vermont, where he appeared in eight games and made a pair of New York-Penn League starts. Graves allowed 16 earned runs on 24 hits in 21 innings, posting an 18:6 K:BB rate.
Graves didn't dwell much on the early results, saying he was just happy to get his feet wet pitching in professional baseball.
"Mentality-wise, and for my confidence, it gave me the experience of what it's like to be with an affiliate besides being at the Arizona complex," he said. "That prepared me for the feel of every day what it's like to be on the bus and traveling to cities. It gave me an idea of what to expect this year. I was grateful for the opportunity."
Riordan believes Graves has the mentality and "stuff" to quickly move up the organizational ladder.
"He's a hard thrower and competitor out there," Riordan said. "He's going to compete even without his best stuff. He has a tremendous amount of upside and is working to develop his secondary pitches to make them plus pitches in his arsenal. He's looking to become a complete pitcher, and if you put that together with his raw natural ability he could be something special."