In an era when many young baseball players have eschewed afternoons spent with friends playing some variation of the game in community parks, sandlots or backyards and spend their time at fancy indoor facilities with private coaches or organized team practices, Mariners pitcher Kendall Graveman found a useful, four-seam fastball during the coronavirus shutdown while pitching in pickup games on fields in Birmingham, Alabama.
A sinkerball specialist who loves to get scores of ground-ball outs (he has a career 51.7 ground-ball percentage), Graveman tinkered with the four-seam fastball during spring training, taking advantage of the Rapsodo technology set up for the bullpen mounds that measure the spin rates of pitches.
While warming up before one of those pickup games with local players, he let go of a few four-seam fastballs, watched the high rate of backspin carry them through the upper part of the strike zone and knew he had something.
“It just felt right,” he said. “And I just held on to that feeling. I think a lot of guys that are pitchers, especially at this level, once you feel it once, you can repeat it. And I’ve been trying really hard to repeat that in my programs and being really intentional with that. I’m working really hard to stay behind that pitch and create backspin.”
Graveman used his new four-seam weapon Wednesday at T-Mobile Park during his first intrasquad start of summer camp. He worked two perfect innings, tossing two four-seamers that registered 97 mph on the stadium radar gun and few others that sat around 95-96 mph. It left hitters looking for his sinking, two-seam fastball at 92-94 mph surprised and off balance. It got weak contact and some swings and misses.
Data has shown that attacking the upper quadrants of the strike zone with a quality four-seam fastball is beneficial. Graveman didn’t have that level of four-seamer in the past, or one he felt comfortable throwing.
“When (hitters) can take away a part of the strike zone on you and know you’re not really going there, it makes their life a lot easier,” he said. “For me I know who I am as a pitcher, and I’m not going to stray from that. I know that the sinker is one of the best, if not the best, in baseball. So I’m not going to completely go away from who I am and what I do. But it makes that sinker much better when I can open the top part of the strike zone.”
It’s something his father Gary preached.
“My dad is probably going to watch this, and he’s been telling me this for years,” he said. “I just haven’t figured it out.”
Graveman cruised through the first two innings, retiring the side in order and striking out three of the first six batters. He came out for a third inning and allowed an infield single to Tim Lopes, walked Daniel Vogelbach and surrendered a rocket off the bat of young prospect Julio Rodriguez that went over the head of Sam Haggerty in center field for an RBI double.
“I had some good banter with Julio throughout the week, and he got me with a double,” Graveman said. “I’m sure I’m going to have to hear about that.”
That was the extent of the damage. Graveman regrouped, getting Donnie Walton on an easy come-backer and striking out Braden Bishop for the second time to end the outing.
There was a little expected fatigue in that last inning.
“You get up to that 40-50-pitch mark, it’s just like early in spring training,” he said. “The last 10 or 15 are really work pitches. You just have to continue to build up that strength and stamina to pitch in games.”
But Graveman believed pitching in that leverage situation was needed.
“There’s going to be times like that in the season where you have to work out of jams,” he said. “I thought (catcher) Austin Nola and I did a good job of getting out of it and allowing only one run. That’s the positive of it, is to be able to pitch when your stuff is diminishing. To be able to get two outs and leave guys stranded, to me that’s more important than if I would’ve cruised through the third inning.”
- The Mariners did some baserunning and situational fielding drills after the three-inning intrasquad game, and it ended on a sour note when Rodriguez left the field with trainers after an apparent wrist injury. Lopes said Rodriguez made an awkward dive on the ball and came up holding his arm. “He looked like he was in some pain,” Lopes said. “I’m not sure what he did.”
- Astros manager Dusty Baker announced that veteran right-hander Justin Verlander will start opening day — July 24 — against the Mariners at Minute Maid Park in Houston. Verlander made five starts against Seattle last season, posting a 3-0 record with a 2.97 ERA. In 30 1/3 innings he struck out 40 with 10 walks. The Mariners, who went 1-18 vs. Houston last season, lost all five games Verlander started. The Mariners announced that lefty Marco Gonzales will be their opening-day starter.
- Outfielder Mallex Smith, utility player Dylan Moore and catcher Joe Hudson, who were allowed to participate in summer camp after being delayed during COVID-19 testing, participated in the morning workouts Tuesday and Wednesday. Manager Scott Servais said they might get an at-bat in Thursday’s intrasquad game. If not, they will play Saturday. “I know they didn’t do much here the last 10 days, two weeks sitting in their hotel rooms,” Servais said. “But they look really good so far.”
- Per Servais, the Mariners plan to carry 17 pitchers — six starters and 11 relievers — on their opening-day, 30-man roster. Even with the new rules and the “taxi squad,” any player not on the 40-man roster must be added to the active roster. Seattle has three open spots on the 40-man roster.