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Allow Me to Excite You About Kendall Graveman

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Kendall Graveman and Justus Sheffield are trading places.

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Workouts Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the players I’ve been excited to watch is Kendall Graveman. As far as I’m concerned, it’s interesting any time a starting pitcher can throw a hard fastball or sinker. The issue to date is that he’s been pretty ordinary given that all of his pitches are reliant on inducing weak contact. With a good defense, that’s not a bad approach, but there’s a chance that Graveman is about to become much more than he’s been. And it’s all because of his fastball.

Back in 2017, Jeff Sullivan wrote about how Graveman’s sinker velocity had spiked. His sinker velocity had been creeping up for years, to the point where he was sitting 94 mph and topping out at 98. That helped him transition from a pitcher who isn’t worth thinking about to someone who could take a leap forward. Of course, he’s remained someone who doesn’t miss bats, and he missed nearly all of 2018 and 2019 with injury, but he’s plenty interesting again.

Consider the following tweet:

Now, it’s encouraging that Graveman is throwing hard. But now he’s throwing a hard four-seamer too. Given the nature of summer camp, we don’t have any access to any useful data aside from pitch velocity for the time being. In lieu of these numbers, we can speculate what these numbers could look like, and how Graveman’s pitch ecosystem may change.

As far as sinkers go, Graveman throws a pretty good one, in a vacuum. The issue is that he doesn’t have any other pitches to complement it, which is why after throwing more than 4000 sinkers over his career, it’s returned a pVAL of 2.3. Despite getting good arm-side movement, it doesn’t get a disproportionate amount of ground balls. For now, I’m a fan of his sinker, but it’s not something that I want to see him throwing 50 to 60 percent of the time.

Here’s where we start speculating. Graveman’s pitch location, since 2017:

Like I mentioned before, that’s an awful lot of pitches at the bottom or below the zone, and not many up in the zone. As far as missing bats, they aren’t many whiffs to be had in these areas, and they’re also prime areas for pitches to get touched up. For hitters, it hasn’t been very difficult to hit Graveman, because nearly all of his pitches travel towards the bottom of the zone.

Kendall Graveman’s four-seam fastball has entered the chat.

Now, there’s reason to believe that Graveman’s fastball can be pretty good. Perhaps the two factors of utmost importance as it pertains to fastballs are command and velocity. We know that Graveman can command his sinker, and so his fastball shouldn’t be different, but he’s also sitting in the mid-90s and topping out at 97 mph.

But we can go further with our speculation. In terms of raw spin rate, Graveman throws a high-spin sinker: he ranks in the 92nd percentile in spin rate for sinkers and the 77th percentile for fastballs overall. Raw spin rate matters, but for four-seam fastballs, active spin rate (some people call it spin efficiency) dictates pitch movement. Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander’s fastballs are outstanding because they have big velocity, and plus raw and active spin. This gives them one of those “rising” fastballs that defies gravity, so to speak, and plays well at the top of the zone.

For Graveman, it’s encouraging that he’s not lacking in velocity, and he spins his sinker well. Where we can start to speculate is that positing that, if Graveman spins his sinker well, he should be able to spin his four-seam fastball well. In 2018, Graveman’s 94.7% active spin rate ranked in the 97th percentile. To sum that all up, that means that Graveman should have at least average velocity or better, plus spin, and plus-plus active spin. That means that his new fastball should theoretically play very well at the top of the zone.

Using his fastball numbers from previous years, here are a few four-seam fastballs akin to his own:

Graveman’s Fastball Comparisons

H-Mov V-Mov Velocity Spin rate SwStr%
H-Mov V-Mov Velocity Spin rate SwStr%
Graveman -7.9 15.5 93.4 2422 1.4
Weaver -8.7 16.2 93.6 2297 8.7
Clevinger -7.5 16.4 93.8 2287 8.4
Bauer -8.7 17.2 94.4 2344 7.8
Bieber -8.4 16.8 93.1 2259 5
Source: Alex Chamberlain’s Pitch Leaderboard

There are few quick things to note. First, we know that pitch properties are important, but where pitchers locate their fastballs (and others pitches) is also of importance. Bieber would have better results if he elevated his fastball, and Bauer’s would be better if he had better command. Of course, these names are hand picked, to an extent, but Weaver and Clevinger show up as the top comps for Graveman’s fastball.

One factor to consider is that Graveman’s fastball should be different from before. The Graveman article I cited mentions that he tinkered with his four-seam fastball during spring training, and he got in front of a Rapsodo to optimize it. Given this, his fastball should theoretically by superior than it was before, and that can only be good for Graveman. Now that he’ll likely be throwing good four-seam fastballs at the top of the zone, his pitch ecosystem should benefit as a whole, and his pitches should all benefit. No longer can hitters bank on pitches being thrown at the bottom of the zone; he’ll be able to keep them a touch more off balance, and garner more whiffs.

Here’s what a typical Graveman at-bat could look like.

First-pitch, back door sinker, for a strike:

He follows it with a four-seam fastball, up and in:

Another sinker in a 1-1 count, this time upstairs, drawing a sword:

And then finishes Betts off with a slider that catches too much plate:

We haven’t gotten the numbers back to know what the new Kendall Graveman looks like, but the early returns are promising. In March, I wrote about how Justus Sheffield is leaning into a new sinker, and here we have Graveman moving the opposite way. This is what’s so charming about pitchers; a pitcher with a career 7.4% swinging-strike percentage is getting me excited to see him pitch. And given that he got in front of a Rapsodo, it’s not out of the question to think he may have toyed with his other offerings.

In the end, we can only speculate until we see Graveman get in front of the Hawk-Eye tracking systems so we can pore over his numbers. Come August, Graveman will probably be deserving of another write-up, but for now we can bask in the satisfaction that he has addressed a major hole in his game. He’s always had the tools, and now we’re going to see if he can put them together.