Yup, this what we got.
Happy lockout, y’all, and may the far-fetched dreams of Semien or Scherzer rest in pieces. Now it’s my job to get you excited about Kendall Graveman instead.
The good news is that Graveman is actually pretty good. It’s understandable that some might be nervous about committing $24 million (money that belongs to Jerry Reinsdorf and is of no material consequence to fans, it should be noted) to a pitcher who had never even posted a semi-full season with an ERA below 4.00 until his 1.77 mark in 2021. You also might see some of his advanced stats and wonder whether they might have just paid up for a fluke: His 3.19 FIP and 3.71 xERA are fine, but it wouldn’t quite be the relief ace that my friend Michael Ajeto saw before any of us did in early April.
So what should we expect to see from Graveman?
Lots of sinkers, first of all. Graveman has always been a sinkerballer, but it was a pretty meh pitch for the majority of his career: From 2014 through 2020, it had allowed a .340 wOBA and a .784 OPS, both just a hair better than league average. In 2021, it was one of the best 15 or so sinkers in baseball, by Statcast’s run value leaderboard.
How did that happen? Is it sustainable?
This is what happened. Here’s a Graveman sinker in 2017:
Here’s a Graveman sinker in ... you can figure it out:
Hey, 97 mph is a lot more mph than 91 mph! Apropos of nothing, there’s this chart, too:
You get the idea. It’s a pretty tried-and-true cliché: Mediocre starter shifts to the bullpen, starts throwing gas out of nowhere, and becomes a lockdown reliever. In Graveman’s case, the sudden addition of a high-90s power sinker simply supercharged the kind of pitcher he already was.
Keeping the ball on the ground was Graveman’s strength as a starter: His 52% ground ball rate was 26th out of 239 qualified pitchers from 2014-20. The problem was that when his sinker was in the low-90s and he was seeing hitters multiple times in a game, all of those grounders weren’t enough to make up for how much it was getting walloped when he made a mistake.
That’s not the case any longer. He doesn’t rack up the huge strikeout numbers we’ve become accustomed to seeing from modern relievers, but that’s always going to be the case for pitchers who throw primarily sinkers. That doesn’t mean the effectiveness is a fluke: The margin of error at 98 mph is unfathomably larger than it is at 92 mph, and that ought to carry over into 2022.
There’s also his slider. I’ll let Tony Wolfe of FanGraphs do the heavy lifting on what specifically changed about his slider, but it’ll just take a couple GIFs to show you another reason why the lack of a track record shouldn’t be too nervewracking for Sox fans.
First, Graveman actually didn’t really throw a slider until after his 2019 Tommy John surgery. He had two breaking balls: A rainbow slider that worked like a curve, and a cutter. Here’s what the “slider” looked like in 2018, when he threw it a bit less than 15% of the time:
And, from the same game, here’s the cutter:
By the end of Graveman’s run as a starter, both of those pitches were getting lit up fairly frequently. They weren’t very good. Then, he learned how to throw a true slider, which he had gone without for the entirety of his pro career until arriving in Seattle:
The breaking ball was too slow and loopy, the cutter was too tight and straight. Now, it’s the best of both worlds, and it’s one of the best breaking pitches in baseball.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially the same blueprint that Aaron Bummer has used over the past two seasons, even if Bummer’s stuff is a little more extreme. Unfortunately, Bummer is also a cautionary tale of how this could backfire on the Sox, particularly if he really is one of their only significant additions of the offseason. Remember this horrible inning?
Unless Tony La Russa and the White Sox coaching staff decide to move their tactics into the 21st Century, they run the risk of setting up Graveman for the same pitfalls they did for Bummer much of the season.
Remember how Graveman outperformed his expected numbers by a pretty significant margin? Some of that is because those stats look less kindly on ground ball-centered pitchers as a general rule. Some of it is also because his defense was set up to help him succeed where the sheer numbers think he should have failed:
One of the reasons strikeout pitchers are being valued more highly than ground ball pitchers is that a ground ball pitcher often needs the benefit of a high-quality defense to hit their ceiling. Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric credits defense with saving three runs for Graveman, enough to bring his ERA down a full half-run.
Those aren’t just theoretical numbers, as weird as the math might seem. It’s pretty easy to visualize. The Mariners shifted on 40% of Graveman’s pitches, and the Astros did so for more than 50%. No White Sox player pitched with a shifted defense more than 35% of the time, for reference.
Here we can see where fielders were typically shifted when Graveman faced a right-handed batter:
Meanwhile, here’s a spray chart of all the balls in play that Graveman allowed against right-handed batters:
Lines up pretty well, doesn’t it? If Graveman got the ball on the ground, his infield setup made it almost impossible for the ball to escape. Meanwhile, the White Sox shifted less than any other team in the American League, and only the Padres shifted less with a right-handed hitter at the plate. Furthermore, they shifted on just 13.3% of Bummer’s pitches, the lowest on the entire staff. This is where the infielders typically set up with Bummer on the hill:
And here’s what his batted ball chart looks like:
Is it any wonder that Bummer underperformed his FIP and expected ERA by more than a half-run? We saw it with our eyes in the playoffs. The difference between teams like the White Sox and teams like the Astros is that the latter usually seems to find a way to get the out on plays like these:
Graveman is a good pitcher, and a three-year, $24 million outlay seems like a fair deal for both sides. If he’s going to pitch to his potential, however, the White Sox coaching staff is going to have to help themselves by helping him. Bummer is easily the most intuitive shift candidate on the pitching staff, and the lack of defensive aid they afforded him in 2021 was nothing short of baffling.
Graveman’s stuff is good, but he’s not going to rack up strikeout like Liam Hendriks. Graveman gets plenty of grounders, but hitters don’t beat it into the ground quite like they do against Bummer.
Graveman will likely be a good pitcher for the White Sox. But unless 2022 brings a change in defensive philosophy with it, expectations for a repeat of 2021 should probably be tempered.