After the April he had, being optioned was the best thing that could have happened to Kendall Graveman.
Making his second-consecutive Opening Day start this season, Graveman began his 2018 campaign with what was the worst stretch of six starts in his big league career. Prior to his this season, the fourth-year starter had never given up more than the 24 runs he surrendered in his six outings between April 25 and May 24, 2016. He pitched just 29-1/3 innings during that slump.
While navigating just 28-1/3 innings (4-2/3 per start) in his first six outings this year, Graveman’s 28 earned runs allowed is a major league-worst making his 8.89 ERA the highest among all pitchers with qualifying innings totals.
Working some changes into his mechanics and plan of attack will be much easier done facing Pacific Coast League hitters rather than those he would have come across over his next three starts — the Mariners, Astros and Yankees.
But the signs aren’t all bad for Graveman and the Athletics.
During that slump of 2016, he carried a 2.080 WHIP while opposing hitters slashed .365/.430/.651 against him — each of those numbers is lower this year (.336/.396/.566). And when emerged from that slump, he did so allowing just 23 earned runs over the next month, going 6-0.
This season’s struggles have been magnified by the fact that he hadn’t banked three solid starts prior to, stabilizing his overall numbers. That is why the metrics, if perused closer, are markedly better. His 1.835 WHIP, while second-worst among MLB qualified starters, is not blown incredibly out of proportion — and is a base runner fewer per four innings than in his 2016 slump. He finished 2016 with a respectable 10-11 record (for a team that finished 24 games under .500) and 4.11 ERA.
He has also thrown just two wild pitches, meaning he is not without some command. While, at the time of his demotion, Graveman was fifth-best in the American League with a 55.1 groundball percentage.
His 60-percent strike rate needs to come up, but keeping his ground-ball stuff around the zone is exactly what Graveman needs to do to be successful.
Graveman will make his first appearance with Triple-A Nashville Tuesday against the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate. He will do so looking to build on the momentum of his most recent and most successful big league start of 2018, when he turned in his first QS (quality start) holding the Rangers to six hits and three runs over six innings. It was his first start this year in which he posted a plus game score (51).
He will also use his time to work on some mechanical adjustments that are probably best saved for the minor leagues.
In his last start at home, a 7-3 loss to the Red Sox in which he allowed six runs (three scoring after he had departed) over five frames, Graveman debuted a new windup. No longer taking his hands over his head in the wind — instead, keeping them steady at the belt — he said was something he had considered doing in the past but have never really worked on.
He said the new mechanics help him stay in rhythm and locate down in the zone better. It also presents the option for other adjustments to further disrupt hitter timing:
“You can kinda change some timing up, too. … You can pause a little bit in the delivery. You see some of the guys around the league doing [that] now — I think it’s huge to see (Marcus) Stroman doing it; (Johnny) Cueto does it a lot. Any way you can disrupt timing at the plate is an advantage and I’m trying to grow. I think that can help me move forward.”
Manager Bob Melvin said he threw the best he had all season
“He mixed his pitches a lot better; [the Red Sox hitters] were off-balance, for the most part.”
More pitch-mixing is something else Graveman will take into his first start with the Sounds.
Normally a guy who throws his sinker-cutter combination about 80 percent of the time, Graveman began using the chageup more heavily in that start against Boston, 16.3 percent of the time according to FanGraphs. In his next start, at Texas, the changeup usage shot up to a career-high 45.5 percent, while the cutter nearly disappeared (5.4 percent).
He will always be a sinker-first pitcher — and given his groundball percentage, that’s a good call — but mixing an 86-mph change rather than a 90-mph cutter off of that 93-mph sinker will do more to disrupt hitter timing.
Add in some Cueto- and Stroman-like hesitations and shimmies and Graveman could become the strikeout-groundball pitcher every team salivates over. And honing those skills in Nashville is best, not just for the pitcher but for the club that needs him to be the top-of-the-rotation arm he expects to be in order to compete for a postseason berth.
Sean Manaea backed up his no-hitter with a solid outing, a seven-inning, no-earnie win at Houston. He did allow one unearned run, but did not allow his first of four hits until the fourth frame. Including his nine against the Red Sox and final two at Seattle, Manaea set the Oakland record for consecutive hitless innings at 14, breaking the previous record of 13 set by John “Blue Moon” Odom in 1968.
Jed Lowrie, who is second only to Jose Altuve with 39 hits, set the Oakland record with 35 hits in the month of April. The previous record of 34 was also set by Lowrie, in 2013. The A’s second baseman is also tied for second in the major leagues in RBIs (27), tied for fifth in WAR (1.7) and eighth in batting average (.339).