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Waiting in the Wings: JR Graham

A closer look at the potential heir to the title of #1 prospect in Atlanta's system

J. Meric

By now it should be clear that I have an affinity for smallish right-handed pitchers who can bring the heat. From Yordano Ventura to Carlos Martinez to the lesser known Jose Leclerc, I find them fascinating in a way that I can't explain. JR Graham, the current object of my affection likely slots in between Martinez and Ventura (even if Ventura ranks four spots above him in Beyond the Box Scores Consensus top 190) in regards to ranks. He might not be as dynamic as either one, although that's to be determined at the moment, but I think he has a better chance to start than Ventura. A 4th round pick in 2011, Graham was a two-way player out of college and didn't make his first college start until his draft year, perhaps saving some mileage on his arm. Graham reached Double-A in his first full season, though he is back there this year and is in his age 23 season.

In 148 innings pitched across two levels in 2012, Graham amassed 110 strikeouts against only 34 walks. While the strikeouts might not blow you away, consider that he paired them with a minuscule walk rate and a dominant groundball/flyball ratio of over 4:1. Graham did find Double-A a bit tougher as he walked as many batters (17) in 45.1 innings there as he did in 102.2 innings in Hi-A. Then again he also struck out almost 2.5 more batters per nine innings, so perhaps he adjusted just fine. Thus far in 2013 (small sample size warning!) Graham has looked as good as one could hope, striking out 14 batters and walking only four in 18 total innings. While his GB/FB ratio has slipped from an otherworldly 4:1, it's still a healthy 3.25:1.

I had written up a bunch of notes for Graham's scouting report, but Ethan Purser of Capitol Avenue Club was kind enough to send me his scouting report:

Graham features an upper-90s four-seam FB, a low- to mid-90s two-seam FB with a ridiculous amount of sink and arm-side run, a mid-80s slider with great depth and lateral movement, and an ever-developing changeup that sits in the low-80s. His two fastballs play off of each other extremely well, as he pounds the lower quadrants of the zone with his biting two-seamer and elevates late in the count with his upper-90s four-seamer. The slider is an easy plus pitch, inducing awkward swings and misses from both lefties and righties. The changeup is still below-average, as he shows it very early out of the hand. It features some sinking life to the arm side and looks like a 5+ pitch every now and again, but it still lacks consistency.

Graham is a smaller dude with a very athletic delivery that he repeats rather well. He doesn't waste any time in getting to the plate, gaining tons of momentum by allowing his hips to lead the way through his balance point. He creates great separation between his upper and lower halves, though he will occasionally rush his front side and get into trouble by leaving his fastball up. Overall, it's a good delivery despite a bit of effort. (I'm a guy who likes effort and intent within a delivery, so I may be a bit biased. Thank you Carlos Gomez, formerly of the Hardball Times.)

Biggest things he needs to work on: changeup efficacy and command of the entire arsenal. I think these are the two reasons he started in AA rather than AAA, in all honesty. I think if it all comes together, he's a #3 who can get swings and misses along with a ton of groundballs. If the changeup doesn't take a huge step forward, he could be a dominant back-end guy, given that he can pump upper-90s with a wipeout slider.

When I put out the call for anyone who has seen Graham live, I was lucky enough to get a response from more than just one person. Zach Mortimer, a member of Baseball Prospectus' prospect team and author of my favorite daily piece, the Minor League Update, also chipped in:

Could be a low 2/high 3 starter; four seam worked 93-96; touched 97; major league sink; heavy; good command; fringy change up; needs to trust it; slider 83-85; solid average; plus potential; can add and subtract (velo, break); small frame; personally I think he's a future closer

So there you can see a fair amount of agreement between the two reports. You can also see the full range of expected outcomes on display. I tend to be more optimistic on these types of guys, but as I admitted up front - it's a personal bias.

Graham has proven to be durable thus far despite his size, and shows feel for a three pitch mix. This should enable him to avoid consignment to the bullpen, which is often the case for shorter pitchers. Graham's ceiling is that of a high three, straddling the line between a number two and three pitcher. While that is his ceiling, I think he settles in as a solid three, with great groundball tendencies and enough strikeouts to matter in fantasy. Ethan is dead on in the relative lack of risk as a prospect, in that he should have a smooth transition to the back end of the bullpen if the he can't stick as a starter. He is the type of pitcher I could see having immediate success at the major league level due to his lack of fear on the mound. Rookie pitchers often fall prey to nibbling at the plate. But in perhaps his only similarity to Dan Vogelbach, I don't think nibbling is in Graham's vocabulary. Pick him up while he's undervalued, because another strong season and Julio Teheran's ascension could leave him as Atlanta's top prospect heading into 2013.

Source Material
Baseball America
Baseball Prospectus
Baseball Reference
Ethan Purser/Capitol Avenue Club

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You can find more of my work at The Dynasty Guru and MLB Draft Insider