SEATTLE — When the A’s reflect back on this season, the evolution of Kendall Graveman will stand out as one of their top success stories.
The numbers won’t necessarily reveal that. The right-hander finished 10-11 with a pedestrian 4.11 ERA. But in a year where injuries, inexperience and ineffectiveness took a big-time toll on Oakland’s rotation, Graveman was the epitome of durability and emerged as the A’s best starter of 2016.
“You always need a guy that you look at as your guy,” manager Bob Melvin said in advance of Graveman’s final start Thursday night. “That when he goes out there your team feels like it’s got its best chance to win. He’s embraced it, I think he’s proud of the fact that he’s that guy.”
Graveman put a period on his second major league season Thursday with a solid effort in a 3-2 loss to the Seattle Mariners. He held the Mariners, a team that knocked him around in his two most recent starts against them, to one run over 5 2/3 innings. Not wanting to repeat past mistakes against a lefty-dominant lineup, Graveman pounded his fastball inside more and contained a team that’s hit the third most home runs in the American League.
“(We) said if they’re gonna beat us, they’re gonna beat us throwing the fastball in,” Graveman said. “That lineup can stack a lot of lefties against you. You can get in a pattern of throwing away, away, away, they can get some good swings on it. But for the most part I thought we commanded it very well tonight.”
That more than anything sums up Graveman’s development from a rocky rookie season of 2015 — his ability to identify problems, correct them and not allow things to spin out of control.
Last season, he was devastated when he was optioned to the minors in late April. He made it back to the bigs but had his season cut short in August due to an oblique injury. That left Graveman an unknown quantity heading into this year.
The A’s saw Sonny Gray struggle through his roughest season that included two separate injuries. Chris Bassitt and Felix Doubront were lost to Tommy John surgery basically coming out of the starting gate. Rich Hill got traded at the deadline. Henderson Alvarez never made it back from shoulder surgery.
It was Graveman who was there to take the ball every fifth day. His 31 starts included his first two complete-game victories, including a shutout of the Chicago White Sox, plus a six-game winning streak through the middle portion of the season. He shaved his walks down from 3.0 per nine innings last season to 2.3 this year.
As is his nature, the 25-year-old Graveman spread credit around for his improvement, including pitching coach Curt Young. But he mentioned a rather surprising name too — first base coach Mike Aldrete, who doesn’t work directly with the pitchers.
“He always asked me, no matter what happened in the game, ‘What did you learn?’” Graveman said. “He really reinforced that I need to learn something from each outing.”
Aldrete said his message for Graveman was simple.
“I think sometimes things go so fast for young guys that you tend to forget, unless someone reminds you, to reflect back on what just happened,” Aldrete said. “What do I need to do to get better? There’s nothing earth-shattering about it. I do like to see guys watch, listen, learn and get better. And if a guy like him gets better than he already is, then we’ve got something.”
Graveman was bothered mid-game by a toenail that was digging into another toe and affecting his balance. Melvin and assistant trainer Walt Horn paid a quick visit to the mound but Graveman stayed in.
Yonder Alonso twisted his right knee and ankle during a ninth-inning at-bat but stayed in, eventually striking out against Mariners closer Edwin Diaz. That was part of a golden opportunity the A’s had to break through, trailing 3-1. Bruce Maxwell delivered a pinch-hit RBI single, but Danny Valencia, Alonso and Max Muncy all struck out to squelch the threat. Muncy also bounced into a 4-6-3 double play to strand a runner on third in the seventh.
“Our situational at-bats hurt us tonight,” Melvin said.