JR Graham: Is He Still An MLB Arm For The Atlanta Braves?
Buying into sudden prospect hype is dangerous. Case in point, JR Graham. Two seasons ago, Graham was the talk of the Atlanta Braves farm system. Taken in the 4th round of 2011 draft, the former Santa Clara Bronco enjoyed a 12-2 record with a 1.061 WHIP between High-A Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi. A top-100 prospect., he battled Julio Teheran for the top spot in the Braves farm system. Expected to wreak havoc in the National League East, a shoulder injury in May 2013 changed everything.
Scouting the right hander in 2012, an arm injury appeared inevitable. Graham needed every inch of his five-foot-ten-inch frame to touch the upper-90’s. He was a max effort pitcher. Failing to gather at the balance point, Graham put tremendous strain on his shoulder. He was able to overpower Double-A hitters with a plus-plus fastball and potentially plus slider. His command was shoddy and frame wasn’t built to handle the rigors of being a power pitcher in the Starting Rotation. JR Graham graded out as a late-inning reliever.
2012 Side Profile
Graham’s shoulder injury was to sideline him for a month. Instead, it took the remainder of the 2013 season. Resurfacing with Double-A Mississippi this season, the 24-year-old had a much cleaner delivery. He was controlled and balanced. A third pitch had emerged, but his fastball and slider had regressed significantly. Graham was a different pitcher. No longer primed for power, he was all finesse. Graham had lost four-to-five mph on his fastball.
2014 Side Profile
Graham’s best pitch remains his two-seam fastball. Sitting at 89-92 mph, the pitch is a shell of it’s former self. The arm-side bore and solid sink is still present. However, the nastiness of the offering has diminished along with velocity. At 93-95 MPH with sharper movement, Graham was able to be less fine and have success.
The right-hander continues to flash a four-seam fastball. The pitch sits 93-94 mph, but lacks movement. In his May start against Dodgers’ affiliate Chattanooga, the pitch was hit hard up in the zone. Plus-plus velocity allowed him to dodge bullets with a flat, four-seamer in 2012. Gearing up for 99 is exponentially harder than 94.
The velocity returned for one pitch. With two strikes and a runner on second, Graham unleashed a 97-mile per hour up in the zone to strike out infielder Casio Grider swinging. The fastball was ranked amongst the “Top Fastballs Scouted in 2014.” A teammate charting pitches behind home plate commented, “I don’t know why he doesn’t throw that (fastball) every time.”
The slider has suffered a similar fate. Once an 86-87 mph offering with sharp, late break, the pitch sits 79-82 mph. The slider scouted in 2012 compared favorably to Brewers pitcher Jimmy Nelson (Scouting Report). The velocity drop has effected the grade of the pitch but, not the results in Double-A. With 11-3 movement, Graham is still successful against lefties, burying the pitch on their back ankle with late drop. In the Majors, hitters will be more likely to concede the offering knowing Graham won’t overpower them with the fastball. Unable to command the pitch for strikes, it’s movement will be wasted on advanced hitters.
The cleaner delivery has improved his 83-84 mph change up. Graham previously struggled with slowing down his body and standing tall in his delivery. With better deception in his delivery, the 24-year-old is able to keep hitters off his fastball. However, bouts of flatness and command causes the pitch to grade below average..
The right-hander’s struggles are reminiscent of another highly touted Braves prospect in 2012 season. The Braves tinkered with Julio Teheran’s delivery in hopes of preserving his long term health and maximize movement. The changes were detrimental to performance. Going back to his initial delivery, Teheran has established himself as the Braves top starting pitcher.
JR Graham has a decision to make. Risk injury and return to previous mechanics which made him a top-100 prospect or keep the delivery which has improved his health but diminished his results. The current product doesn’t have a Major League future. The stuff doesn’t play in Double-A. If Graham chooses to return to his old delivery, a MLB career is likely to follow. Many pitcher would choose to risk it given the options. Will Graham do the same?
Tool Present Future Projected Role 7th Inning Reliever Fastball 55 70 Slider 40 55 Changeup 40 35 Control 40 40 Command 35 35
Owning JR Graham
Even with the hype Graham received, the right-hander presented as a late inning reliever when at his very best. Hopefully, fantasy baseball owners sold high when he entered the top-100 instead of being left holding the bag. Going forward, expect an eventual transition to bullpen duty and possible 7th inning role if things break swimmingly. Use JR Graham’s struggles as a friendly reminder pitchers who appear down the top-100 are anything but sure things. For the most part, successful arms find themselves ranked well into the top-20 prospects in all of baseball before breaking through. – Mike Newman
28 Aug 2014 / Chris Blessing /
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