No, Cindi, I did not leave out the 'r'. I'm talking about eyeline, not eyeliner. No doubt Kendall Graveman and Eric O'Flaherty top the list of A's pitchers who have struggled out of the gate. To my eyes, each is suffering from the same affliction and that is they are ground ball pitchers operating on the (generally accurate) belief that in order to be successful they need to keep the ball down.
However, the art of pitching is not as simple as throwing to the same "right place" over and over. (Exceptions: Mariano Rivera and at times Sean Doolittle so yes, the exception proves the rule.) You have to change the batter's eyeline more than Graveman and O'Flaherty have been doing and that means pitching strategically up in the zone enough to keep batters from zoning in on, timing, and mastering the low strikes when you throw them.
In O'Flaherty's case, I have watched his pitching fall into a pattern where he is throwing sinkers that look like strikes but then sink below the knees. At times batters will swing and miss, but then you see the hitters adjusting because they know what is coming and laying off the same pitch. Eventually O'Flaherty is forced to come in and he is hit hard.
In Graveman's case, he is pounding the knees but what he is not doing much is surprising batters with a fastball or cutter up in the zone. So what you see against Graveman is batters tapping his power sinker foul early in an at bat only to square that same pitch later in the at bat once they have seen and adjusted to the pitch and location. Sure, Graveman is varying his repertoire mixing in some changeups, cutters, and occasional curve -- but he is trying to keep everything down and the batters have been able to virtually eliminate the upper half of the strike zone.
In contrast, Dan Otero demonstrated the value, and importance, of changing eyelines in yesterday's brilliant relief effort. One at bat that stands out is the strikeout of Kole Calhoun that ended the bottom of the 4th. Stephen Vogt set the target just above the letters and Otero hit the mitt with a fastball that Kalhoun swung and missed. Otero is, like Graveman and O'Flaherty, a sinkerball pitcher who usually aims to keep the ball down. This time, Otero changed the eyeline and surprised Kalhoun in a half of the strike zone Calhoun was not prepared to cover.
What does this mean for Graveman and O'Flaherty? Not that they should start throwing high sinkers or living in the upper part of the strike zone. But they need to incorporate weapons that can force hitters to worry about covering more than just the knees. For Graveman he can probably best use his cutter, or his best 4-seam fastball, as a weapon to show across the letters. For O'Flaherty it might be running some pitches up and in, or right in on the hands, to right-handed batters so that they cannot lean out over the plate in search of a predictable location and movement.
Assuming Graveman gets another start Saturday, keep an eye on whether batters look too comfortable with his repeated pitches around the knees and whether he tries to use the upper part of the strike zone at times, just as Otero did so well last night. Few pitchers in MLB can get by while allowing batters to eliminate half of the strike zone, and certainly Graveman and O'Flaherty are no exceptions.