To start off, I'd like to give everyone a bit of an introduction to a new series called "Scouting the System" that the Talking Chop prospect team will be doing this season. We're periodically going to watch and evaluate some of Atlanta's intriguing talent down in the minors, whether that be through MiLB.tv or in person, and evaluate a player's performance in that game (or games). We'll discuss what we did or didn't like about the player's performance, mechanics, and the like, and put it into the context of the player's current outlook as a prospect and possible future as a member of Atlanta's big league club. With that said, let's get started!
Most of us are pretty well-aware of who J.R. Graham is and what he brings to the table as a prospect, so I won't waste too much time on background information. Graham, a 24-year-old, diminutive, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher with a propensity for inducing lots and lots of ground balls, was named Talking Chop's #2 prospect during the offseason (Ethan has a great, brief breakdown of Graham there if you want to refresh your memory), and is thought of highly by many people in the scouting community due to his exciting stuff.
After recovering from a shoulder strain that sidelined him for the vast majority of the 2013, J.R. Graham has returned to the mound as a member of the rotation of the Mississippi Braves, Atlanta's double-A affiliate. Prior to last night's start, Graham had pitched effectively in his first three starts following his injury. In fact, during the first full week of the season, Graham was named our Minor League pitcher of the week after two strong rehab starts, albeit in limited innings. Before last night's game, J.R. hadn't allowed an earned run in 13.1 innings of work, producing a typically high ground ball rate of 51.2% and, perhaps even more importantly, had only allowed two free passes, a sign that his shoulder was feeling right once again and that he was back on track to continue his strong work as a starter.
This brings us to the main topic of today's article, which was Graham's start last night against the Montgomery Biscuits, the Tampa Bay Rays' double-A affiliate. After the M-Braves put up a couple of runs in the top of the first inning on a warm, still night, Graham took to the mound looking to build off of his previous success. Unfortunately, things went a bit awry for Graham, as he promptly hit the Biscuits' lead-off man with a fastball that ran up and in, plunking him on the back of the head (the batter was alright). After falling behind the two-hole hitter 3-1, Graham got unlucky, inducing a weak ground ball to third base on a well-located two-seam fastball that was ruled an infield hit after Kyle Kubitza couldn't make a play in time. From there, things snowballed. Graham walked Curt Casali to load the bases, and then promptly gave up a 5-pitch walk to Cameron Seitzer to plate a run for the Biscuits. Graham then surrendered a sharp single to Richie Shaffer on a poorly-located fastball up and over the middle third of the plate and quickly found himself down 2-0. After finally recording an out via the strikeout to Mongomery's next hitter (Graham worked down in the zone and got a whiff with both his slider and fastball, sequentially, in this at-bat), Graham then induced a pop-up to shortstop and a fly ball to right field to finally escape the first frame.
In the second inning, Graham displayed more wildness to the first batter of the inning before bearing down to blow him away with a well-located fastball after pumping in two more strikes with his fastball, recording his second punch out of the day. Graham got a bit lucky when facing Mongtomery's lead-off man, Willie Argo, as he left a 1-0 fastball up in the zone that Argo turned on, but the ball settled in Robby Hefflinger's glove just shy of the left field wall. Graham then would've been out of the inning after inducing a routine ground ball to shortstop, however, Elmer Reyes made an error on a rather simple play to force Graham back into the stretch against the heart of Montgomery's order. Casali made the error hurt, as he immediately jumped on yet another poorly-located fastball from Graham, turning on the pitch down the third-base line for an RBI double, putting Montgomery on top 3-2. Graham was visibly frustrated during the next at-bat, stomping around the mound after things went sour quickly, and walked the next hitter on a borderline 3-2 fastball that, to be perfectly honest, was well-located down and away as a borderline strike to Seitzer, a lefty. The next hitter, Shaffer, ended up being Graham's last of the day, and the at-bat was rather apropos considering the tough nature of Graham's outing. After drawing even with a 2-2 count, Graham hung what can best be described as a "cement mixer" of a slider that spun without much horizontal break or vertical movement right down the pipe at Shaffer's belt. Shaffer ripped the pitch up the middle on a line directly back from whence it came. Fortunately for J.R., he was able to get a glove on the ball before it got a piece of his body, and knocked the liner down and mercifully recorded the final out of the inning after tossing the ball over to first base.
Graham's night was finished after 54 pitches (27 balls, 27 strikes), 3 hits, 3 runs (2 of which were earned), 3 walks, 1 hit batsman and 2 strikeouts. Needless to say, this wasn't Graham's best outing, and the coaching staff likely elected to pull him after only 54 pitches due to his continuing recovery from a shoulder injury, coupled with his general wildness and ineffectiveness on Wednesday night. This was the first poor outing of Graham's 2014 season, and I believe that we can look at what went wrong for Graham in this start and use it to identify some possible red flags for Graham as he continues to develop and strive towards becoming a Major League pitcher.
Let's start out with the good--although Graham had a rough outing, he flashed his low-to-mid 90's two-seam fastball with heavy sink and considerable arm-side run on occasion. In the first inning, Graham's strikeout of Luke Maile was accomplished by throwing a two-seamer that began right on the border of the middle and inner third of the plate and dove down and in. It was a perfectly-located pitch that demonstrates one of Graham's primary strengths. Both of Graham's strikeouts were swings-and-misses on the two-seamer, so it was working at times last night. Much like the two-seamer, the slider was erratic, but occasionally effective, although Graham didn't have much of an opportunity to showcase his off-speed pitches, as he fell behind most of the hitters he faced and couldn't utilize his secondary offerings. In fact, Graham's third pitch, his changeup, went virtually unused, as I only charted him as throwing one during his entire outing.
Graham's inconsistency with the location of his fastball was the most concerning thing that I noticed. Early in the game, Graham was consistently running his fastball up and in on right-handed hitters. When he has this issue, it typically stems from his occasional tendency to fly open with his lead shoulder in his delivery, and this was what was frequently displayed during his outing on Wednesday. 12 of Graham's 54 total pitches were fastballs that missed either wide or high and wide on the arm-side of the plate (in to a righty, out to a lefty); that's 22% of his total pitches. Additionally, the prototypical run and heavy sink on the pitch disappeared at times during his outing last night, making the plane of the pitch flat and hittable. Fortunately for Graham, most of those flat two-seamers missed the zone altogether last night, so Montgomery wasn't able to put any big swings on the pitch.The sinking two-seamer is Graham's bread and butter, and he simply cannot be effective unless he's generating adequate movement with the pitch as well as locating it.
As I mentioned previously, Graham most effectively throws his two-seamer when he's repeating his delivery well and keeping his shoulder from flying open prematurely. Graham works all of his other pitches off of this pitch, and it is the primary method by which he generates such an absurdly good ground ball rate. Without proper control of this pitch, he is unable to get ahead in the count and showcase his wipeout slider and developing changeup, as well as the occasional four-seamer that he'll use to ramp up his velocity and elevate as a strikeout pitch in two-strike counts. Graham's start on Wednesday demonstrates what can happen when he isn't accomplishing this; he walked batters and allowed some balls to be hit hard. Graham's FB:GB ratio was an atypically even 3:3, and this omits the slider that nearly sent him to the hospital against the last hitter he faced, a sharp liner.
These concerns with the repeatability of Graham's delivery, along with lingering concerns about the severity of his 2013 shoulder injury and lack of height (he's 5'10"), leads me to believe that seeing Graham as a high-leverage back-end reliever in the future is a fairly likely scenario. Graham's delivery is highly reliant on torque, and unfortunately, these deliveries are generally fairly high-effort and rely on mechanics that are difficult to repeat at times. As we saw today, Graham was unable to consistently repeat his delivery, and I fear that this is something that could come to fruition in the future as a starter. Pitchers with these tendencies (think Craig Kimbrel or Francisco Rodriguez, for example), often end up in the bullpen despite possessing great raw "stuff." Graham's ground ball tendencies and filthy slider would work well in such a role, and his average changeup would give him a third offering that many relievers don't possess. Graham's stuff may not be quite as dynamic and deadly as Kimbrel's, but he could easily carve out a career as an elite back-end bullpen arm or closer.
I'm not ready to give up hope on Graham as a starter just yet, but concerns highlighted in starts like last night's demonstrate that the possibility of J.R. Graham as a future bullpen arm isn't inconceivable. Graham has an excellent fastball with velocity and movement, a slider with devastating two-plane break, and an average changeup when he's able to repeat his mechanics and stay on top of the ball. Many pitchers will three pitches of such caliber end up being successful Major League starters with long, fruitful careers. However, one must take into consideration Graham's difficult-to-repeat delivery, stature, and health concerns in order to properly evaluate his future. I am certainly not ruling out the possibility that Graham could be a quality, mid-rotation starter if things break his way and he stays relatively healthy while shoring up some of the repeatability concerns he displays with his delivery. It's important to be aware of the fact that Graham's future in Atlanta may be as a relief pitcher instead of the starting role that most Braves fans hope and expect him to fulfill in time, and last night's start for J.R. was simply a manifestation of some of the concerns that myself and others have about the viability of J.R. Graham as a starting pitcher in the future.