The easiest thing to do when something extraordinary happens in the first week of the season is to dismiss it as a product of small sample size. If a player suddenly goes from meh to marvelous, odds are he’s going to crash back to Earth as soon as he’s exposed by a few more games.
Then there’s the curious case of Kendall Graveman. A thoroughly unremarkably pitcher for the first two-plus seasons of his major league career, Graveman came into this year with a 4.08 ERA (which looks even worse when considering that the A’s home park favors pitchers) and a weak strikeout rate of just 14.5% (5.6 per 9 innings pitched). Graveman drawing Oakland’s Opening Day assignment had far more to do with a lack of healthy and qualified alternatives than anything else.
A week later, Graveman sits at 2-0, with a 2.08 ERA. The even bigger surprise might be his strikeout rate: After starting his career as one of the least likely pitchers in the game to miss bats, he’s punched out 12 batters in his first 13 innings pitched of the season. So what gives?
Simply put, no pitcher has changed his approach more in these first few days of the season than Graveman. In 2016, the right-hander threw his sinker 56% of the time, but still mixed in plenty of other offerings. This year, he’s doing something you’ll almost never see in a starting pitcher: Throw one pitch almost every time. Through his first two starts of 2017, a jarring 87.8% of Graveman’s pitches have been sinkers. Even that figure doesn’t tell the whole story though. All but 1% of his pitches have been sinkers...or four-seam fastballs and cutters. The sinker and four-seamer both check in between 94-95, while the cutter clocks just shy of 91. And there’s more. Not only is Graveman throwing some variant of a fastball virtually every time...the vast majority of his pitches are pounding the bottom of the strike zone, or lower.
Can he keep this pace up, throwing everything hard, everything down, and getting everyone out with that one pitch? It’ll be tough. Graveman is essentially doing a Zach Britton imitation right now. But Britton doesn’t need to deceive opposing batters nearly as much in 12-15 pitches as Graveman must throwing 100. Bartolo Colon is the only other active starter who leans anywhere near this heavily on one pitch, and Colon is basically a unicorn. Graveman’s also given up a ton of hard contact in his two starts, while giving up two long balls, and stranding 97.6% of the runners he’s put on base.
So, yeah. As fun a story as Graveman’s been so far, I’ll take the under.