Kendall Graveman’suse of his sinker in his past two starts has reminded his pitching coach of another former A’s right-handed starter.
“He’s almost been in the Bartolo Colon percentage with that pitch,” said Curt Young.
When Colon was in Oakland, the A’s marveled at his ability to flummox opposing hitters relying mostly on variations of one pitch, his fastball. In 2013, according to FanGraphs, Colon threw his fastball a majors-high 85.5 percent of the time while winning 18 games.
In his final start before the All-Star break, Graveman took a shutout into the ninth inning against the Astros in Houston while throwing his sinker 82.8 percent of the time, according to Brooks Baseball data. Monday night, he faced the Astros again in Oakland and, rather than adjust his strategy, poured on more of the same. Graveman threw a season-high 112 pitches – 90 of them sinkers, or 80.4 percent – in a 7-4 win.
It was Graveman’s fourth win in his past six starts – a stretch in which the A’s are 6-0 – as he has dramatically increased the use of his best pitch.
Over his first 12 starts this season, per Brooks Baseball, Graveman was essentially a four-pitch pitcher. He mixed his sinker, which he threw 39.9 percent of the time, with a cutter (31.2), changeup (13.1) and curveball (11.8). He went 2-6 with a 5.28 ERA and pitched into the seventh inning only twice.
Last season, Graveman threw his sinker about half the time. So those numbers indicated a pitcher attempting to be more versatile in his second full major-league season. Since June 17, however, Graveman has gone to the other extreme, basically scrapping his secondary pitches and relying on his sinker (68.8 percent) and cutter (18.3).
The result: Graveman has a 2.68 ERA over his last six starts and has pitched deeper into games, compiling his five longest outings of the season in that stretch.
“It’s just him trusting his number one strength,” Young said. “That’s movement for him, and he has velocity attached to that movement. (The sinker) has been a pitch for him that he’s been able to go back and forth (in the strike zone) with. It’s more that game, the in-out game, more than the change of speeds.”
Graveman agreed that his improvement has stemmed from confidence in his sinker.
“Confidence in it means I’m locating better; I think that’s been the biggest key,” he said. “I’m locating the sinker, it’s had a little more velocity, and it’s still got good movement.”
Graveman may be throwing an overwhelming number of sinkers, but if he can locate it to both sides of the plate and mix in some cutters and four-seam fastballs, he still has several weapons. Colon, similarly, created different movement on his fastball and moved it about the strike zone so much that it sometimes looked like several pitches.
“If it’s got the kind of movement on it that he creates, it’s something he can go through a lineup a couple times with just the use of that pitch,” Young said of Graveman’s sinker. “We’ve talked about, if he’s going to go non-fastball, you like it for a ball just to change their eyes.”
It helps that Graveman is complementing that sinking movement with velocity. His average sinker in July has been 93.5 mph, the highest of any regular-season month in his career. Monday, he reached 97 mph several times in the early innings. Graveman said he has worked hard in the weight room and credited the A’s training staff for helping him “keep my legs under me” well into the second half.
“The velocity lets me get by with some balls that might end up in the middle of the zone that I wasn’t getting by with earlier in the year or even last year,” Graveman said. “There are going to be days where it might not be (there) and you’ve really got to locate. There’s going to be days where you’re throwing a little harder and say, hey, I can let this go in the zone and if I miss, I still feel confident the velocity’s going to take over.”
When his sinker is working, Graveman’s outings should resemble Monday. He recorded 17 of 21 outs via ground ball or strikeout as the Astros drove the sinker into the ground.
Graveman did allow a home run to Marwin Gonzalez, who lined a sinker over the right-field fence. As Gonzalez neared first base, Graveman nodded in his direction. It was an illustration of how Young said embracing the sinker has transformed Graveman’s game.
“It’s more like, ‘You hit my best sinker, and if you can do that, you beat me,’ ” Young said. “He’s almost taken it a little beyond what we were thinking he might do. But it’s turned into him trusting his best pitch.”