by Josh Moore / A’s Farm Stockton Correspondent
If you’ve been paying attention to Stockton’s impressive pitching staff this season, you’re not alone. There’s been plenty of talk about the potential of top draft picks like A.J. Puk and Logan Shore, but it was another pitcher on the Stockton staff who was actually the team’s most consistent hurler over the first three weeks of the season.
RHP Brett Graves started off his second season at Stockton by allowing just 1 run and 1 walk while striking out 19 in 18 innings over his first 5 appearances of 2017 for the Ports. The 24-year-old finally had his first rough outing of the season for Stockton on Friday, but he’s still sporting a 3.00 ERA and a 0.86 WHIP to go along with just 2 walks and 24 strikeouts over 21 innings of work.
Graves was a 2014 3rd-round selection out of the University of Missouri, where he spent three seasons pitching in the SEC (the same conference that both Puk and Shore called home). Prior to attending college, Graves was a 26th-round selection of his hometown St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 after leading Francis Howell High School to the MSHSAA State Championships. Splitting time between pitching and playing shortstop, he pitched to a 9-1 record with a 1.95 ERA while batting .441 with six home runs and 35 RBIs as a high school senior.
At Missouri, Graves made impressive strides over the course of his collegiate career, giving many organizations the feeling that he had a lot more potential left to be tapped. He finished his junior season at Missouri with a 3.87 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP, limiting hitters to 0.4 HR/9 while increasing his strikeouts to 6.2 K/9 and decreasing his walks to 1.7 BB/9.
Graves endured a rough start in his first season at Stockton in 2016, posting a 5.72 ERA and a 1.51 WHIP in the first half. He showed improvement over the course of the season though, putting up a 3.36 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP in the second half. Graves ultimately finished the season with a 4.60 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP over 141 innings, but his 5.5 K/9 and his 1.8 K/BB ratio could still stand a little improvement.
Well, one only has to look at Graves’ 24 strikeouts and 2 walks in 21 innings in 2017 to see that he’s clearly stepped up his game this season. We recently had the chance to speak with him to find out, among other things, what accounts for his success at Stockton this season…
AF: You were originally drafted by your hometown St. Louis Cardinals out of high school prior to accepting the offer to pitch at Missouri. How close were you to taking the Cardinals up on their offer and foregoing your college career?
BG: After getting drafted in the 26th round, I was pretty set on going to college. I think it worked out for the best for me and I was really excited to go to Mizzou.
AF: Were you a huge Cardinals fan growing up and was it ever your dream to play for them?
BG: Yes, I was a huge Cardinals fan. I used to imitate their lineup playing in the backyard.
AF: Did you have any favorite pitchers growing up that you wanted to emulate?
BG: I really liked Chris Carpenter. He spent a lot of his time in St. Louis, and I loved the way he competed, as well as his intensity on the mound.
AF: Going all the way back to 2006, there have been quite a few notable Missouri pitchers selected in the early rounds of the draft, including Max Scherzer, Aaron Crow, and Kyle Gibson. Have you ever had the opportunity to talk with any of them?
BG: As far as those guys go, no, I haven’t ever gotten to know any of them. I paid very close attention to how Max attacked hitters and how he competed out on the mound. I definitely tried to pick up anything I could from those guys. I wanted to follow right in their footsteps.
AF: Is there anyone else from your time at Missouri that has had a profound impact on your maturation process?
BG: Rob Zastryzny. He was our Friday night starter at Mizzou my freshman and sophomore years. We pushed each other and were there for each other whenever we needed to vent. Last year, he made his debut with the Cubs and got to be a part of that amazing World Series run.
AF: Over your three seasons at Missouri, your walk rate decreased dramatically each year. Some thought that, as a freshman, you came out throwing hard and had to learn how to command the strike zone; as a sophomore, you controlled the strike zone but maybe weren’t throwing as hard; but as a junior, you really tied both in together and threw quality pitches with a good command of the strike zone. Do you agree with that assessment?
BG: Yes, I would say that’s pretty spot on. When I came in as a freshman, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to reach back and throw it by these hitters anymore. I had to find my balance between attacking with my best stuff and learning how to pitch.
AF: What played the biggest role in your collegiate development and making those transitions?
BG: I would say my two years of summer ball in Newport, Rhode Island. My sophomore summer is where I really think I started to figure things out. Also, I think Rob [Zastryzny] helped me a ton with that.
AF: How has your pitch repertoire evolved from Missouri to how you pitch now?
BG: I think I have really been able to expand on my repertoire. I mix my four-seamer with my sinker much more. I’ve added a changeup that I really feel comfortable with that I hardly threw in college. And I think my breaking ball is way ahead of where it was in college.
AF: Although it’s early in your second season with Stockton, you’ve commanded the strike zone extremely well, showing off a really good walk rate and strikeout rate. Is there anything else that’s enhanced your development since being drafted by the A’s?
BG: I think the insight and access to some of the new TrackMan data from our staff has helped me to see how to use my pitches better and how to mix pitches maybe more effectively.
AF: There’s so much information flowing in and out of baseball circles these days. Velocity, spin rates, release heights, the list goes on and on, but what do you find most compelling and most interesting when examining the data for your own pitches?
BG: I like to look at how my pitches stack up against major league averages – how they’re moving and in what locations they are most effective. It gives me an insight on what pitches to throw in certain counts and the confidence and conviction of how and when to throw them. [A’s minor league pitching coordinator] Gil Patterson and the rest of the A’s staff have really gone to great lengths to make this information available to us and I think it helped me. I don’t think it’s something you can think too much about, but getting a general idea on how to use your pitches, which of your pitches are most successful, and gauging your pitch development based on some of the numbers you see can be very beneficial.
AF: What pitch combinations are working for you now? Are you doing something different with your pitches that’s equating to better results or are you simply getting more comfortable on the mound?
BG: I think it has to do with a lot of those factors. First and foremost, I think I am just attacking the hitters better, leading to more counts that I’m ahead in, which typically leads to better results. I also think the development of my curveball to this point in the season has given me much more confidence and I’m really feeling much more comfortable with it.
AF: A few really talented pitchers [A.J. Puk, Logan Shore, Daulton Jefferies] joined you in Stockton this season. Did you feel any added pressure coming into the season knowing that there could be more eyes focused on the pitching staff with some high expectations?
BG: Not necessarily. Iron sharpens iron and they’re all good dudes that work really hard, so I was excited.
AF: How do you feel about how they’ve been progressing? Do guys like Logan or A.J. come to you for advice and, conversely, have you picked anything up from them that you’ve felt was helpful?
BG: Well, I feel they both have a tremendous grasp of who they are and what they need to do. But just from having been through a couple professional seasons now, I try to let them know what to expect – mainly just some things that I would have liked to know coming into pro ball.
AF: Coming into the season, the A’s were beginning a relatively new philosophy of having eight starting pitchers pitch together in four-inning tandems, and you got the first crack on opening day. How are you adjusting to starting a game and then relieving in a game per the tandem starting pitch philosophy?
BG: It’s interesting. I think you can learn some valuable lessons from it. You have to come out ready to go and attacking with your best stuff. There’s no time for a two or three spot early whereas, in a normal start, you can settle in and go six or seven innings and it’s a quality start – you just don’t have that option in the eight-man.
AF: Back to opening day, you pitched four perfect innings without allowing a base runner. Had you ever gone that deep into a game without allowing a man on? And was there talk of coming back out for the 5th inning?
BG: I have a couple times. However, I’ve never been able to seal the deal. We briefly discussed it in the dugout, but we decided it was just [too] early in the season and [we] had our eyes set more down the road and looking to be at our best come July and August.
AF: Well, let’s wrap this up with some light stuff. Our readers often like to know some random details about players. I’m personally a big music geek, so what bands are you currently listening to?
BG: I’m a country music fan. Lately, my roommates and I have been listening to a lot of Thomas Rhett.
AF: If you were only allowed to keep one country artist’s entire collection of albums with you on a long road trip, which artist would it be?
BG: Well, last year I went to Hawaii and downloaded every Kenny Chesney song. He has so many hits, I hardly have to listen to the same one twice.
AF: By the way, you mentioned roommates. Is there anyone you’re particularly close to on the team?
BG: Well, I share a bedroom with Lana Akau. Doesn’t get much closer than that…
AF: It’s been a pleasure. Good luck the rest of the way.
(All photos courtesy of Meghan Camino)
* * *