J.R. Graham is certainly the Braves’ hottest prospect, and some analysts are even beginning to suggest that he might be the best. It’s been a stunning one-year ascent for the 23-year old right-hander, who was drafted in the 4th round in 2011, pitched well in rookie ball that year, and in 2012 moved from High-A to Double-A without breaking a sweat. It’s not quite Andruw Jones moving from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the majors to the World Series in 1996, but it’s been a remarkable, unbroken rise to the top.
Graham was born in Sacramento, went to Livermore High School, and was a prominent athlete in the Bay Area, winning and he idolized Tim Hudson when he was growing up. His senior year of high school, he was named “East Bay Athlete of the Year,” so naturally, the Oakland A’s selected him in the 2008 draft. But they waited until the 46th round, and he opted to go to college, attending Santa Clara University.
Santa Clara has a baseball program, but it is not first-tier. When the Braves took Graham in the fourth round in 2008, it was the earliest in the draft that a Santa Clara Bronco had been taken since the Giants took Randy Winn in the third round in 1995. (It was the first time that the Braves had drafted a Bronco since they took Ed Giovanola in the second round in 1990.) In all, just four Broncos have made the majors since the year 2000: C Adam Melhuse, RHP Mike Crudale, OF Daniel Nava, and RHP Michael Stutes.
Graham started his college career playing the field and pitching, but he had a 7.15 ERA his freshman year — largely thanks to “allowing 17 earned runs in three outings which totaled 2 1/3 innings” — and shortly thereafter he focused on pitching. In his sophomore and junior years, he mostly relieved and closed, making just five starts as a junior before being drafted. In the back of the pen, he gained notice for occasionally hitting 100 mph on the gun.
Why was he just a fourth rounder? His college career was slightly uneven, marked by that unsightly freshman ERA, and his college program isn’t one of the biggest in the country. And, perhaps just as importantly, he’s a relatively small guy. He’s listed at 6’0″, 185, which is not bad at all considering that he was a preemie, but is still relatively slender for a man who throws 100. (In other words, Frank Wren told DOB, “He’s probably Huddy’s size.”) Many teams may have worried that he wouldn’t be able to hold up under a starter’s workload, and tabbed him as a future reliever — which, after all, is what he did in college.
But the Braves saw him as a starter, and they converted him almost immediately. He started eight of his 11 games in short-season rookie ball in 2011 and did not come out of the bullpen once in 2012. “It’s been pretty easy for me,” he told Baseball America last June:
At first, I remember going into college starting and I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got to be a starter. I’ve got to reserve myself.’ And it didn’t really work out for me that well. But then my coach gave me some real good advice. He said to go out there with a closer mentality and pretend like it’s nine one-inning saves. I’ve done that ever since and I keep that closer mentality while I’m starting.
He has had good control in the minor leagues, and the Braves have noticed. “I take pride in not walking people,” Graham said after being drafted. The Braves have been talking that up, too. “He throws strikes,” Fredi Gonzalez told MLB.com after watching him throw batting practice. “He throws it over the plate with all of his pitches.”
That’s going to be important, because control is one of the most difficult aspects of the transition to the majors, when young pitchers discover that you can’t get away with mistakes with major league hitters, and you can’t just rely on pure stuff. Graham’s walk rate more than doubled when he got to Double-A last year, though it was a small sample size: after walking 17 men in 102 2/3 innings at High-A, he walked 17 men in just 45 1/3. That’s not catastrophic, and he still two and a half times as many strikeouts as walks, but it’s a cautionary note.
Up to now, the story of J.R. Graham has been an unmitigated success. He’s an undersized college reliever who in a year and a half has become one of the most ballyhooed starting pitching prospects in baseball. So I’m going to have to be a jerk and throw water on this and write that prospects rarely succeed in a straight line. That’s certainly true for the Braves’ last four huge pitching prospects, Teheran, Delgado, Vizcaino, and Minor: Teheran and Delgado struggled with their control in 2011 and 2012, Vizcaino got Tommy John surgery, and Minor struggled with his control from 2010 until the second half of 2012. Graham may well succeed, but it’s unlikely to happen without a few hiccups.
Here’s one reason why. I’ve taken a look at Baseball America’s Top Ten Prospects lists for the Braves since 2004 (I couldn’t see prior lists, but would be glad if anyone with a BA subscription could help out). I am now going to list, without further comment, every pitcher who appeared on those lists, along with their rank out of ten. I have underlined the ones who have succeeded at the major league level:
The lesson: TINSTAAPP, etc. Pitching prospects are volatile. You never know. The Braves have done very well overall in pitching, and they’ve also traded a lot of these guys when they had value — including Davies, Devine, Jones, Harrison, Delgado, Spruill, Vizcaino, Oberholtzer, and Hoover. (They traded Hanson after nearly all his value was gone.) The jury is out with Delgado and Vizcaino, but Hoover and Harrison are the only two who have already experienced major league success after being traded away from the Braves. (Devine had a terrific part season in 2008, but then his arm blew up, and he had two Tommy John surgeries in three years.)
Anyway, Graham looks awesome right now. But Teheran sat atop the Braves’ prospect list for the last three years. Anyway, I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. Just remember to be cautiously optimistic.