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Kendall Graveman is moonlighting as a relief ace

The former starter is looking like he has closer stuff

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday night, Chris Flexen started and justly drew a fair amount of attention. (In fact, I wrote it up here if you missed it.) After five strong innings, he turned it over to Kendall Graveman, who served as the bridge to Anthony Misiewicz and Rafael Montero. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of obsessed with Kendall Graveman. I won’t be turning down any opportunities to write about him this season.

It shouldn’t be all that difficult to see why. Here’s a leaderboard from Saturday’s game, via Baseball Savant:

The Mariners hit the ball harder than the Giants, and they also hit the ball farther than the Giants. But also, the Mariners threw harder than the Giants! So much so that Graveman is the only player present on the leaderboard. In fact, Graveman is responsible for 13 of the 15-hardest pitches thrown on Saturday.

Here’s Graveman’s second pitch of the game:

I shouldn’t have to say much for you to know that this is impressive. A sinker at 98.6 mph that runs 18 inches to his arm-side? It speaks for itself. In context, though, it’s even more impressive. Given that he’s spent much of his career as a starter, Graveman hasn’t been able to reach back and throw as hard as he probably could. Even last year, when his maximum sinker velocity gained an entire tick over the rest of his career, Graveman wasn’t able to maintain it. In 2020, Graveman threw five pitches over 98.0 mph. This year, Graveman has already thrown three such pitches.

I’m prepared to gush about Graveman. You should prepare yourself for me to gush about him. But before I get there, I’m obligated to visit a quick caveat. In July of last year, I wrote that Graveman was throwing hard in summer camp, but also, he introduced a new four-seamer. While his four-seamer hasn't factored in much, the bump in velocity excited me. Consider the following trend, from Graveman’s first start of 2020:

Now, this is from an outing in which he started, but there was a trend in 2020 of Graveman coming out throwing gas, and then hitting a wall and not throwing as hard after about ten to fifteen sinkers. It’s certainly not the end of the world, but it’s also not ideal.

And then we have Graveman’s velocity chart from Saturday:

The first impressions from the chart are that he’s certainly throwing harder now, and the cutter is more of a slider now. The focal point, though, should be that Graveman exhibited a similar trend on Saturday that he did at times last year. It should be noted that he held his sinker velocity through a two-inning outing during his last appearance in 2020 too. I don’t know how Graveman’s velocity is going to hold during his multi-inning outings in 2021. But I do know that he lost his after his first seven sinkers. We’re going to have to wait and see how that unfolds.

With that said, Graveman completely overwhelmed hitters. He posted a 43% CSW, painting the corners with sinkers, while mixing in sliders and changeups to his glove-side and arm-side, respectively. Graveman hardly had a pitch that he can reliably throw for strikes. Now he might have two.

Here’s Graveman painting a first-pitch, front-door sinker:

96.2 mph, perfectly located, with tons of arm-side movement. There’s not much you can do with that one, which is exactly what the Giants did with his sinker. Nothing.

Again, Graveman paints a front-door sinker, this time in a 2-2 count:

This one is 95.5 mph, and Dickerson does as much as he can with it, which is basically to drop the barrel on it and get some bat on the ball. Any harder and I’m not convinced Dickerson makes contact. On the night, the Giants only put one of Graveman’s 17 sinkers into play — and it rendered a pathetic 55.8 mph exit velocity.

Graveman’s command was good, and his velocity was great. His slider, seldom talked about, gave the Giants hell. He only threw 11, but seven of those went for called strikes or whiffs. They also accounted for all five of his strikeouts.

Perhaps none of his strikeouts speak more to pitch tunneling than this slider off of the plate:

At a certain point, you have to commit as a hitter. Given the location of this pitch, contextualized by Graveman’s repertoire, it’s most likely a sinker or slider, but there’s the off chance that it’s a changeup. The sinker would end up in the zone, the changeup would end up at the bottom of the zone, and the slider, obviously, would not be in the zone. Solano hedged his bets on the former two, and he was wrong! He chases a slider that’s well off the plate, which is sort of what you have to do when you’re trying to catch up to mid-to-upper-90s velocity on the edge of the plate with movement.

Just to give you the full picture, here’s Graveman using his slider for a whiff below the plate against Evan Longoria, at 89.5 mph:

And Graveman getting an in-zone whiff, this time registering on the radar gun at just 85.4 mph:

It was a mere two innings, and the Giants aren’t exactly an overpowering force, but Graveman flashed a combination of command, stuff, and consistency that I’m not sure we’ve seen before. He used his slider at a higher rate than he ever has in a game before, and his sinker appeared to be a direct beneficiary. The two are certain to interact symbiotically moving forward.

And so, on one hand, there’s the fact that Graveman was able to throw as hard as ever for several innings. He did this last September, but otherwise, it’s unprecedented. And then there’s the slider taking a step forward as a new weapon. We’ll need to give hitters time to adjust to the new-look Graveman, but lest we forget that velocity is king, I’ll remind you: velocity is king!

Last year, I thought Graveman was going to become much more than he’s ever been. I thought his four-seam fastball was going to the reason, but it turned out that his sinker was much more responsible for his dominance in the bullpen. I could be let down by my assumptions again. Graveman is not far removed from a Tommy John procedure, and he’s even lesser removed from being diagnosed with a bone tumor in his spine. Kendall Graveman has had an arduous journey to get to where he’s at, but he may have finally reached the journey’s end.