Kendall Graveman was never asked to assume this position, nor did he have some Machiavellian plan to take it over in some sort of a clubhouse coup.
Given his accommodating personality, his commitment to preparation and his passion for being a part of a team, perhaps it was going to happen regardless of his inexperience in a relief role.
But after just 15 appearances into his tenure as a reliever for the Mariners — nine in 2020 and six thus far this season — Graveman has become the unquestioned leader of a bullpen that has vastly exceeded the minimal expectations held for the largely unknown and inexperienced unit.
“He does have leadership ability, there’s no question about it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Quite frankly, it’s one of the reasons we re-signed him. We didn’t really know. He didn’t have a obviously huge track record or body of work to say, ‘Oh yeah, this guy’s gonna be a good reliever for you for the next three, four years.’ We didn’t have that. But what we did know was that we knew the person. And we were all in on Kendall Graveman.”
If you are looking for a major reason for the Mariners’ surprising 11-6 record to start the season, you should start with a bullpen that is ranked near the top of MLB in multiple categories.
“The bullpen has absolutely been the key to the kind of the run we’ve had here early in the season,” Servais said. “They are kind of the unsung heroes.”
The unit is in the midst of a streak of 19 1/3 scoreless innings and hasn’t allowed an earned run in 24 consecutive innings. Coming into Wednesday, it ranked first in MLB with lowest batting average (.176) and slugging percentage (.285) allowed, fourth lowest ERA (2.69), third most saves (7) and second fewest homers allowed (5). Perhaps the biggest issue is a low 1.97 strikeout to walk ratio. The Mariners have struck out 57 batters and walked 29.
The five come-from-behind wins? The bullpen has to keep the deficit within reach to allow a comeback.
“I feel as good about our bullpen right now as I have in a long, long time — probably since the Eddie Diaz/Alex Colome days (2018),” Servais said. “This bullpen is a little bit different in the fact that it may be deeper. All the guys are getting a chance to pitch. They’re all getting a chance to contribute. We’re focusing on throwing their best pitches in the right spots. As long as they keep throwing strikes, good things are gonna happen. So that’s probably what excites me as much as anything.”
As the leader of the eight-man group, Graveman has been perhaps its most effective pitcher. Forced into a relief role last season because of a benign bone tumor in his neck, the longtime starting pitcher does not miss his days in that role.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “It’s been fun. The adrenaline’s a lot different. It’s a different ballgame coming out of the bullpen and I really don’t (miss starting). Mentality-wise, I really think I fit down there. The game’s really slow for me out there even in those moments being able to slow the game down. I don’t know what it looks like to you guys watching, but to me it feels slow. So I like it. I’m really not missing starting and having to wait to pitch again. I like being in ballgames more often.”
In six appearances this season, he hasn’t allowed an earned run, pitching 7 2/3 innings and yielding one hit with two walks and eight strikeouts. While Servais has tried to stay away from labeling a pitcher as a closer, particularly after Rafael Montero blew a couple early saves, Graveman has become the most trusted reliever in the highest-leverage situations. He has two saves and has shown the ability to succeed in pressure moments. It helps he has a nasty 98-mph sinker to rely upon while increasing the usage of a biting slider to go with a plus changeup.
“He’s receptive to coaching and the some different things that we have thrown on him,” Servais said. “He is one of those guys that has a little experience. He’s not afraid to hold others accountable, which is valuable. I’ve often said that players listen to players more than they’ll ever listen to coaches or the manager. So when you’ve got a guy like that, who is just natural leader, he is going to step up and try to create that team within the team.”
Part of that leadership is working with the starting rotation in pregame meetings and in pregame and in-game conversations about preparation and facing hitters.
“It’s one of the few groups that I’ve been a part of that the starters and the relievers have really meshed,” he said. “We talk a lot with the starters of how to pitch guys, how are we approaching guys? And it’s an ongoing conversation. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been successful throwing the baseball this year is how well we’ve prepared.”
In past years, pitching coach Pete Woodworth and bullpen coach Trent Blank would run the meetings and be the dominant voices. Now it’s Graveman and Marco Gonzales doing the talking and getting others involved.
“Honestly, during meetings now, the players are leading a lot of the conversation,” Graveman said. “And that was the goal going into spring training based on the conversations we had with Woody and Trent. It was if we want to get to where we want to get to, then we’ve got to start leading and not having you guys just spoon feed us. I think it’s showing right now and we got to continue to do it over a long season and not really slack off.”
The starters in the rotation have seen the change.
“He’s going out there and pumping 99 mile per hour sinkers, power sinkers,” said Justus Sheffield. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch. All credit to him for going from, starting last year to moving to the bullpen, that’s not an easy adjustment to make. He’s made it look easy.”
So he’s never coming back?
“No, I don’t think so,” Sheffield said. “He’s kind of taken over the bullpen and leading it right now. He likes that role. And, you know, we definitely like him in that role.”