KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kendall Graveman struggled at first to remember the name of the man who taught him the grip for his best pitch, a sinking fastball. It’s kind of a funny story, learning to grip what has become one of the most effective pitches in the majors, from a man who today coaches the hitters for a junior-college softball team, who also in part learned about the importance of finger strength from conversations with a national-champion arm wrestler. It all sounds so over the top, but it's true: You just never know how wisdom will get passed along between generations.
About the coach’s name. After being given a moment to think, does Graveman remember?
“I do …” Graveman said, his face grimacing as the mental wheels turned. “I don’t. It was at Central Alabama Community College. Heck, he may still be there. It’s a junior college in my hometown.
“We didn’t have a lot of connections in Alexander City.”
Sometimes, one good connection is all you need. At 13 years old, Graveman had little clue when his dad enrolled him at a baseball camp run by CACC that it would lead to the first big break of Graveman’s baseball career. Regardless, being a polite and thoughtful kid, Graveman paid attention to the instructors in the event he might learn something.
Boy, did he.
“We were just messing around in the outfield,” Graveman said. “I was in the eighth grade. It was me and a bunch of my friends. We were just having a good time, and he’s teaching us to do a few things and he says, ‘Hey, throw it like this. Grip it.’ He has us all in a group and he says, ‘This is how you can throw a sinker.’
“So I said, ‘OK,’ and I started doing it. I believed him. And I just continued to throw it and, naturally, you throw it enough that it starts to feel comfortable. Now, being able to repeat that grip and repeat that delivery is something that has come in handy.”
Now 26, Graveman has been repeating himself a lot lately for the Athletics, who traded slugger Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays in order to acquire him, infielder Brett Lawrie, top prospect Franklin Barreto, and another player after the 2014 season. So far, it has been a deal most analysts prefer for the Jays, who have gotten two dominant seasons from Donaldson and, not coincidentally, two playoff berths. Ever since the middle of 2016, the A’s have been encouraged by Graveman’s progress, but now he’s showing indications of being able to dominate. And it’s because of his sinker.
In his second start this season, Graveman took a no-hitter against the Rangers into the seventh inning. Of the 85 pitches he threw Saturday night, Brooks Baseball reports that 93 percent of them were the same kind—a fastball thrown with a modified two-seam grip that makes the ball sink. But 93 percent? Who throws the same pitch 93 percent of the time and survives? Mariano Rivera and his cut fastball are retired and waiting for induction to Cooperstown. Even Bartolo Colon thoroughly mixes his mostly fastball regimen with two-seamers and four-seamers.
Less so with Graveman. Much less. In his first start of the season, which came with Opening Day honors, he threw sinkers 84 percent of the time. That sinking feeling is definitely a trend. It’s also been a long time coming. Graveman has known ever since the baseball camp 13 years ago that the sinker was his best pitch. He just didn’t always remember to use what coach Steve Lewis taught him.
Something clicked in Graveman’s brain and his eyes opened wide.
“Oh, Lew!” Graveman burst out. “His name was Lew. Coach Lew. I told you I’d remember!”
Steve Lewis also remembers Graveman, whom he later tried to recruit for Central Alabama knowing that he’d probably take a better offer, which he got—from Mississippi State, pretty much the gold standard in college baseball. Toronto drafted Graveman in the eighth round in 2013 and promoted him late the following season, just before the trade.
As Graveman intuited, Lewis still works for CACC, only he’s not the baseball team’s pitching coach any longer after 15 seasons. He’s in his first season as the batting coach for the softball team, which is working on a 30-win season. Lewis said that switching sports was inspired, in part, by having a 9-year-old daughter who plays softball. CCAC baseball, now run by Larry Thomas, won the NJCAA national championship in 2013, and had a number of All-American pitchers with Lewis as an assistant. But he coaches hitters now?
“I couldn’t tell anyone the first thing about softball pitching,” Lewis said in a phone interview.
Lewis, 50, might not have seemed like much of a baseball connection to Graveman when he was an adolescent, but his resume—even pre-Central Alabama—tells another story. Lewis coached in Australia in 1998 through MLB’s International Envoy Program after coaching at various colleges and high schools. A decade before, he was on the staff of the Braves’ Double-A team in Greenville, S.C.
Those teams in 1989-1990 included the likes of future major leaguers Steve Avery, Mike Stanton, Turk Wendell, and Mark Wohlers. Greenville’s pitching coach was Bill Slack, now a Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer. Lewis recalls going to spring training and learning from the Triple-A pitching coach at the time, Leo Mazzone. Lewis' professional influences were nonpareil, as they were in college.
Lewis tried to walk on the Auburn baseball team as a freshman, but after he got cut coach Hal Baird made him a student assistant for four years. Auburn’s rosters included Bo Jackson and Frank Thomas, to drop a couple of names. Lewis calls Baird the best pitching mind he’s ever been around, recalling that Baird taught the same Graveman two-seamer grip to Scott Sullivan, who went on to pitch in the majors (mostly for the Reds) for parts of 10 seasons.
Lewis, as a coach at Auburn High, also remembers picking the brain of Tim Hudson when he attended Auburn University in the mid-90s. At CACC, he also coached former major leaguer Brandon Dickson, who now pitches in Japan. Lewis taught him the sinker grip, too.
“If you’re a good coach and good educator, you don’t stop learning along the way,” Lewis said. “I asked a lot of questions, because finding different ways to beat an opponent can only help when you’re trying to teach players how to win and do their best.”
Lewis didn’t want to take credit for Graveman’s sinker, but did say he was glad that Graveman remembered him.
“What I added to it was probably very minor,” Lewis said. “What’s interesting is, guys learn grips and they hold on to ‘em, and they bring ‘em back out when things aren’t going well sometimes.”
That was Graveman’s issue in mid-2016. The way Graveman remembers it, he was in a jam at Target Field on the Fourth of July. Making his 42nd career major-league start and 16th for the A’s that season, he came in with a 4.84 ERA, not the results hoped for. Graveman was doing all right against the Twins in a scoreless game, but they had loaded the bases on a Miguel Sano walk in the fourth inning, putting Max Kepler in position to put up a crooked number.
The count was 1-0, and catcher Stephen Vogt called for time, went to the mound and told Graveman to stop shaking him off and to start throwing his best pitch. Like, exclusively.
“He said, ‘I’m gonna set up in the middle of the plate and you just throw the sinker,’ because it had such good movement,” Graveman recalled. So he did.
Graveman’s first offering was up and caught too much of the plate. A’s television analyst Ray Fosse noted that Graveman was lucky Kepler merely fouled it back. Vogt set up again where he said he would and Graveman, who had come in tied for the AL lead in ground-ball double plays, responded with a better pitch—a 93-mph sinker with late movement that Kepler chopped toward second. The A’s couldn’t turn a double play and the Twins scored to take the lead, but a light bulb illuminated Graveman’s world. He started throwing sinkers. A lot of sinkers. At one point, the Twins made nine straight outs on grounders, and they didn’t score any more runs that day. With the help of run support and reliever Ryan Dull, who wriggled from another jam later on, the A’s won 3-1.
Graveman recalled telling A’s ace Sonny Gray afterward, “I was just throwing it down the middle.”
Gray, nudging his young teammate along mentally, replied: “Yeah, you should realize that your sinker is good enough to get people out.”
Those were enough hints, Graveman thought. From then on, it's been (almost) nothing but sinkers.
“We were like, ‘Hey, let’s take it to the next game,’” Graveman said of Vogt’s tactical shift. “Trust in Vogter.”
A’s pitching coach Curt Young had been trying to get Graveman to throw more sinkers, to use his best pitch more often. Ultimately, it’s something the pitcher just had to realize himself.
“The pitch was so head-and-shoulders above his other stuff,” Young said. “There were times in games when he was getting beat with his cutter, really for no reason. He’s learned about himself, he’s learned what works here. Locating the way he does, with the movement that he has, he understands how hard [the sinker] is to hit. He saw the good results he was getting from this pitch. The pitch works in any situation. He’s not going to get beat with another pitch. He’s going to get beat with his best.”
A pitch he had been throwing 30 or 40 percent of the time became one he was using 60 percent of the time, 70 percent, 80 percent. Results improved. Over the next 12 starts through September 4 (to arbitrarily pick an end point) Graveman posted a 2.82 ERA with a .604 OPS against. He wasn’t getting a lot of strikeouts, but he also wasn’t letting in runs.
So, can Graveman keep throwing sinkers that often and not only get away with it, but consistently dominate? Manager Bob Melvin, a former catcher, says he can.
“At the big-league level, it’s difficult to throw any one pitch as much as Graveman does,” Melvin said. “I think everyone tries to rely on their best pitch, but for the most part you can’t just throw one pitch and get away with it at the big-league level. He’s pretty unique in being able to do that.”
Vogt, who caught Colon with the A’s in 2012-2013 and is usually behind the plate for Graveman, said Graveman’s sinker has a chance to be as good or better than that of Colon, who is still chucking as he nears age 44. Vogt likes Graveman’s other pitches too; they include a cutter, a change up, and a curve, all of which were abandoned against the Rangers. Graveman says he’s continuing to work on them in bullpen side sessions.
“Yeah, there’s a danger [when] you don’t change speeds,” Graveman said. “We always say that hitting is timing, and that pitching is disrupting timing. That’s one thing I’m not doing—disrupting timing—but I’m a firm believer in, no matter what pitch you throw, if you throw it in a good location, you can still get outs. So if you can locate that pitch, then what’s the point in throwing another one you can’t locate as well? So that’s the point I’m at now in my career.”
Greg Maddux famously said something like: The best pitch in baseball is a well-placed fastball. He meant that it goes for just about any major-league fastball. Those around Graveman say that his sinker is better than most typical pitches.
“His sinker is one of the best in baseball,” Vogt said. “You don’t really need much more than that—other than to keep the hitters off it. Everybody in the ballpark knows that a fastball is coming, but when you put it in the right spot, it’s tough to square up. I think he could end up being someone in that conversation, with Colon and Rivera, as being someone who has just one plus-plus-plus pitch.”
That’s a lot of plusses.
Why does Graveman’s sinker work so well? What makes it move the way it does? Why do hitters have so much trouble with it when it's right?
“I’m not a scientist by any means, but when the ball is boring down on you in the right place as it crosses the zone, you can’t get underneath it as a hitter,” Vogt said. “The only way you’re going to drive a sinker is if the pitcher makes a mistake.”
Melvin said Graveman’s sinker can be manipulated into different variations that keep hitters guessing.
“It’s a good one pitch,” Melvin said. “And it’s a sinker that, even if you know it’s coming and it’s down, it’s tough to get any air. But again, it’s not just ‘one’ pitch. To get him off that pitch, you’re going to have to make him throw something else. There’s uniqueness to different sinkers. If you could teach Kendall’s sinker to somebody, if I could tell you exactly what it is, everybody would want to throw it. It’s a combination of everything—his arm slot, his leg drive, he’s got good lower-half leg drive.”
Graveman said the transition to professional baseball has given his time to work on his body and increase the strength in his legs. College pitchers usually throw year-round, he said. Pro baseball players get an opportunity to go 2-3 months without playing games. Using that time to work the weights has given Graveman more endurance, and added a few mph to his fastball.
In 2015, Graveman averaged 91.9 mph on his two-seamer. These days, he throws about 94.6 mph, and his strikeout rate is rising relative to his earlier results. When he throws a sinker, Graveman said he pronates with his hand—bending it forward at the wrist, which he believes helps to create movement. In addition to the wrist and the legs, Lewis says Graveman has unusual power somewhere else that gives the sinker more movement: His ring and pinkie fingers.
“When you look at that grip he uses, you’ve got to have strength not only in the first three fingers, in the front-half of your hand, but you’ve got to have a lot of strength in your ring finger and your pinkie finger in the back half of your hand, which is uncommon,” Lewis said. “Most people don’t have any strength in the back half of their hands, so they can’t dominate the ball with the back-half of their hand.”
How did Lewis come to realize this was important, and that most pitchers are different? From conversations with a national-champion arm wrestler named Tony Bishop, who happens to come from Alexander City, Ala., like Graveman, and has a daughter on the CACC softball squad. "We got to talking about arm wrestling, what it takes to win there, and he said strength in the other fingers is essential. I realized, 'Hey, it's like he's talking about throwing a change up."
“Kendall’s two-seam grip that he showed you, he kind of splits the ball with his third and fourth finger, and then he has an equal amount of strength with the other fingers, or at least he has enough, to dominate the ball,” Lewis said.
Graveman would like to dominate the league—for more than just a start or two, or for more than a half-season. He might be on his way.
“We had a chance to have Bartolo Colon here, and he basically threw all fastballs,” Young said. “And I’d say that formula works when the ball moves as much as Bartolo’s did, and when the ball moves as much as Kendall’s does on the same pitch. I think he’s learned it’s what his strength is, and he’s going to stay with it.”
Lewis has stayed with Graveman from afar, rooting for the hometown kid who came to his baseball camp, and pleased that he remembers a lesson from long ago.
“It’s like, ‘Who taught Michael Jordan to dunk?’” Lewis said. “Someone else might get credit for helping him learn, but it’s Michael Jordan who did all of the work, who had all of the ability. Kendall has amazing lower-body strength and lower-body explosiveness. And the grips? You just play around with stuff until something comes out of your hand with some movement. It’s something we messed around with when he was 13. I might have said to him: ‘One day, this might work for you.’”
It’s working. And the report from Alexander City on Graveman goes like this:
“Alex City is just abuzz everyday, with him being in the big leagues, and being the Opening Day starter, and everything,” Lewis said. “He’s in the daily conversation.”
Yep. And Graveman’s in the conversation with Mariano, Bartolo and Maddux, too.