So there’s "worst case scenario" and there’s starting Zach Neal, Ross Detwiler, and Andrew Triggs in three consecutive games. If any of them were even on your depth chart in April, then congratulations: you have successfully dug all the way to China.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate Kendall Graveman, not initially for his pitching but just for his health. Graveman has watched a dozen fallen comrades bite the dust, the scalpel, or the MRI, while never needing to miss a turn for any reason. I now invite Graveman to embrace the mantra I have chosen for him: "Middle ground."
Graveman reinvented himself in July, making the quantum overnight leap from being a 4-pitch pitcher (sinker, cutter, slider, changeup) to throwing 80%-90% sinkers, the rest mostly cutters, and abandoning the slider and changeup almost entirely. He had great success until he didn’t.
Here’s the thing: there is a middle ground, where you lead more with your "sinker-cutter" combination but also keep batters honest by mixing in enough changeups and sliders that they are not able to sit on a limited repertoire.
I was heartened, last night, by the Trumbo at bat in which Graveman unleashed the slider, first to steal a strike and then to put away the free-swinging Trumbo. I never thought, even when it was working so well, that Graveman could thrive as a two-pitch pitcher — really the only starting pitchers who usually can are the Roger Clemens-Curt Schilling-Randy Johnson types whose two pitches happen to be a mid-90s fastball and a devastating splitter or slider.
An approximate balance of pitches that should work best for Graveman long-term might be something like 65% sinkers, 20% cutters, 7.5% sliders, 7.5% changeups. That balances being a "sinker-cutter" pitcher who leads with his best offerings and mixing in enough secondary pitches that batters do not actually know what to expect.
Regarding Dillon Overton, what a difference a few MPH can make. As a college pitcher whose fastball hit 94MPH, Overton was a 1st round talent who became available to the A’s only because he was heading for the uncertainty of Tommy John surgery. Most TJS survivors regain their velocity but for whatever reason Overton simply hasn’t, and in a big way. In the big leagues Overton has topped out at 90MPH but sits mostly at 88-89 MPH and to say he has been hit hard is like saying that Phyllis Diller enjoys makeup. 11 HRs in 21 IP is breathtakingly awful, enough to give Overton a place in the record books but not in the rotation.
The e’er-diplomatic Bob Melvin characterizes the problem as location mistakes that are getting hit hard, as if what Overton needs to do is never to miss location. That’s not going to happen. When your margin for error is as razor thin as Overton’s, you are not equipped to succeed at the big league level.
I see one, and only one, hope for Overton to resurrect his career and while it’s not easy there is at least precedent for its success. No, I am not suggesting he learn a knuckleball. What Overton needs to do is to become a devoted student of Frank Tanana and the way Tanana resurrected his career after injuries sapped him of his velocity and he had to learn how to thrive as a junk-baller. And boy did he.
This brings me to one of my critiques of the A’s pitchers’ repertoires in general. Their breaking pitches are generally "the slider" or "the curve" with no nuance or variation. Let’s compare Jesse Hahn to Jered Weaver for a moment. Hahn throws a power sinker, a changeup, and "the curve he throws". He throws that curve almost exactly the same way every time, meaning that if you’re fooled it’s a good pitch and if you’re not you have a great chance to time it and mash it.
In contrast, Weaver is (ok, was) the master of changing speeds on his change of speeds. He would throw a breaking pitch that the batter would try to stay back on, then swing at only to be slightly out in front because Weaver had pulled the string a bit more. As the classic joke goes, "He’s the kind of pitcher where you say to yourself, ‘Wait, wait, wait — then you swing and go, ‘Dang, I should have waited.’"
Easier said than done, no doubt, which is why there are so many more "throwers" than "pitchers"; it’s far easier to master one breaking pitch than to master several variations on one. Nonetheless, pitching is so much about disrupting the batter’s timing and for some pitchers, they simply cannot get away with throwing every fastball, every changeup, every curve, exactly the same way every time.
And that’s Overton. I do not believe Overton can be successful throwing "the fastball" (which lacks the velocity, or sinking action, to be an effective ‘pitch to contact’ pitch), "the changeup" (which as good as it may be, cannot succeed alone), and "the curve" (which when you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen everything it has to offer).
Overton does have naturally good control and a feel for offspeed stuff, and maybe, just maybe, he could reinvent himself throwing sliders, slurves, slower curves and yet-slower curves — a la Tanana, but also in the mold of what allowed Weaver to thrive for years topping out at 90MPH.
I’m not suggesting this is easy or likely to succeed but I am suggesting that it may be Overton’s only avenue to success and that he could be the very kind of pitcher capable of this kind of transition. Worth a shot because with the margin for error his current arsenal has, I don’t see him returning to great results. Just great whiplash.
That’s your Eyeball Scout report for this Tuesday on two A’s pitchers currently moving in opposite directions. Meanwhile, enjoy our bullpen because chances are you’re going to be seeing a lot of it over the next 72 hours!