Graham Spraker will be available when this year’s lockout-postponed Rule 5 draft is eventually held. The 26-year-old right-hander wasn’t added to the Toronto Blue Jays 40-man roster prior to last month’s deadline. While this was not exactly a surprise — the former 31st-round draft pick out of a DII school has never graced our prospect rankings — Spraker is nonetheless coming off an eye-opening season. In 31 relief outings, all but one of them at Double-A New Hampshire, the erstwhile Quincy University Hawk logged a 2.62 ERA and fanned 65 batters in 46-and-two-thirds innings.
Spraker’s breakout culminated in an award-winning stint in the Arizona Fall League. Pitching for the Mesa Solar Sox, the righty threw 11-and-a-third scoreless innings, allowing just four hits and a pair of walks, with 17 strikeouts. He was named the AFL’s Reliever of the Year at the conclusion of the campaign.
All that aside, just who is Graham Spraker?
“I am who I am,” the righty responded when asked about his pitching M.O. “I’ve changed a lot every year. I’m a pretty adaptable player — that’s why I’ve had success — but I feel that I’ve found a good blueprint now. It’s something I’m going to try to stick to for the rest of my career.”
Spraker cited his four-seam fastball as his strength — “It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out” — adding that he throws the pitch roughly 70% of the time. That he throws it at all is somewhat of an accident. The Tucson native used to be a sinker-baller.
“I changed in 2020,” explained Spraker. “The organization gave me a directive to learn how to throw a cutter, so that I could mirror my sinker with a better off-speed pitch, and in learning how to throw a cutter, I also learned how to ride the four-seam. The specific metrics aren’t fantastic — I probably average 18 to 22 [inches] — but it still plays well. My approach angle to the plate is what makes it effective.”
Higher radar readings have helped. Spraker went into the season with velocity-driven goals, one of which was to average 93 mph. He got there — “plus some change” — although it did take some time. Straker started slow in his efforts, but as the season progressed, so did the giddy-up on his heater. On his best days, he’ll reach 95 with change.
Spraker acknowledges having made a few mechanical tweaks, but even more important to his success has been a fine-tuning of his frame. The 6-foot-3 starter-turned-reliever began working with a new strength coach during the pandemic, and he’s now a leaner-and-meaner 185 pounds — down from the 200 listed on his player page.
“It’s all about the preparation I put in,” said Spraker. “That’s all it really was. I got all my affairs in order. I crossed my Ts, I dotted my Is.”
He did a lot more than just that. Seven months after entering the season with a long-shot profile, Spraker has emerged as a legitimate big-league prospect.
“I exceeded my expectations by far,” admitted Spraker. “I totally changed my pitch mix. I came back with two pitches that I’d never thrown before, and I had the best season of my career.”
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
The 16-member Early Baseball Era committed elected two former Negro League players into the Hall of Fame last Sunday, and while Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil are certainly worthy of the honor, five other candidates were left on the outside looking in. One of the 42 for 21 committee members that Jay Jaffe spoke to in Friday’s episode of FanGraphs Audio offered a blunt appraisal of the process when addressing SABR’s Southwest Michigan chapter on Saturday morning.
Gary Gillette shared that he’s spoken to two people who were on the Early Baseball Era committee, and both told him that there “wasn’t a lot of knowledge in the room amongst the non-Negro League scholars.” That they were receptive to what the scholars had to say wasn’t enough in the opinion of the Detroit-based historian.
“To me, that’s a bad election,” opined Gillette. “Half your electorate is dependent on the other half to tell them how to vote… They’re not saying, ‘vote for this guy,’ but that’s really what it is. By the way you shape the debate, and by the statistics you quote, and by the emphasis you put on different players, you are recommending to them who they should vote for. Because they don’t know. And if they don’t know, they shouldn’t be on the committee.”
And then there is the Golden Days Era Committee, which elected Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, and Tony Oliva… but not the every-bit-as-deserving Dick Allen, who fell short by one vote. Three years ago, Harold Baines was voted into the Hall of Fame by the Today’s Game Era Committee, and in the opinion of many, bias played a meaningful role in his selection. Two highly-influential members of that committee had close relationships with Baines.
This year’s Golden Age Committee didn’t simply have a speculative conflict-of-interest issue; it had an unabashed conflict of interest. Prior to meeting with the rest of the committee to discuss the candidates, one of the members — against what must have been his better judgement — shared on social media that he would be “pushing for” his “former roommate & great friend.”
A certain amount of bias is inherent in any, and all, Hall of Fame-voting decision(s). That said, putting together as-unbiased-as-possible committees should be a priority in any election. It’s common sense.
Only one right-handed hitter won a National League batting title from 1972-1991. Who was it?
The answer can be found below.
The Minnesota Twins have hired Hank Conger as their first base coach. The 33-year-old former big-league backstop will also serve as the club’s catching coach.
Tim Federowicz has been hired to manage the Tacoma Rainiers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of the University of North Carolina in 2008, the 34-year-old Federowicz played for six other teams over parts of eight big-league seasons.
The Arizona Diamondbacks have hired Chris Garagiola as their new pre- and postgame show host, and secondary play-by-play announcer. The grandson of former big-league catcher — and longtime broadcaster — Joe Garagiola has been serving as the play-by-play voice of the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
Tim Kurkjian is the recipient of the 2022 BBWAA Career Excellence Award. Currently with ESPN, the 65-year-old University of Maryland grad previously worked for The Baltimore Sun, The Dallas Morning News, and Sports Illustrated.
Mike Teevan is the recipient of this year’s Robert O. Fishel Award for Public Relations Excellence. The 42-year-old Boston College alum is MLB’s VP of Communication.
Ron Blazier, a right-handed reliever for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1996 and 1997, died earlier this month at age 50. The Altoona, Pennsylvania native won four of his six decisions and had a 5.38 ERA over 92 innings.
Chuck Dobson, who pitched for the Kansas City/Oakland A’s from 1966-1973, and for the California Angels in 1974 and 1975, died earlier this week at age 77. A right-hander who saw his career cut short by injuries, Dobson led the junior circuit in games started (40) and shutouts (5) in 1970.
The answer to the quiz is Bill Madlock, who captured National League batting titles in 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1983. Every other NL batting champ from 1972-1991 was either a left-handed hitter or a switch-hitter.
Spencer Strider was a guest on the aforementioned episode of FanGraphs Audio, and not surprisingly, the conversation got a little nerdy. That was particularly true when the 23-year-old Atlanta Braves right-hander talked about his slider. Improving the quality of the pitch was a primary goal this season, and the eureka moment came during a bullpen session in Double-A Mississippi. Strider explained it this way:
“It was [pitching coordinator] Dan Meyer and a teammate of mine, Sean McLaughlin, who is a wizard with TrackMan and data. He’s a great pitching coach, even though he’s still playing. My goodness, he gave me quite a bit of help when I was in Mississippi. What he told me was, ‘I’ve looked at your video, and I’ve seen your ball metrics, and your breaking ball stinks. You have no idea how to throw a breaking ball.’ I said, ‘I completely agree with you, I would love to have some type of solution to this, and I’ve yet to find one. So, I’m open ears, man. Tell me anything.’
“He said, ‘You have to feel supination, because you are not supinating’ — which is like when you’re throwing a football. When you throw a football, you supinate through release. Your pinkie is in front, towards your target. That’s what allows the ball to have that football spin, just like a slider. A slider has a true bullet-spin axis.
“My wrist was completely bent, so that my palm was flush to the target and my fingers were parallel with the first- and third-base lines. I was basically under the ball, pushing it with no power. If I was able to create the right axis, there was no way I could throw it hard enough. And when I threw it hard enough, there was no way I can make it spin the right way. So we got in the bullpen and… I changed my grip. I tucked my thumb under the ball to lock out my wrist into a supinated position, and almost instantly — having seen it [and] had it explained to me — I felt it. It was a slider.”
Strider, a 2020 fourth-round pick who’d begun the season in Low-A, went on to make his big-league debut on the final weekend of the regular season. That experience was among the topics covered in the podcast, as were his triple-digit heater, the Tomahawk chant, and the MLB lockout. The episode is well worth the listen.
Cody Ponce has reportedly agree to sign with NPB’s Nippon-Ham Fighters. The 27-year-old Cal-Poly product has pitched in 20 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates over the past two seasons.
Brooks Kriske has reportedly signed with the Yokohama DeNA Baystars. Most recently with the Baltimore Orioles, Kriske shared the story of his split-change this past July in our Learning and Developing a Pitch series. Hirokazu Sawamura was featured in the same installment.
The Yomiuri Giants Professional Baseball Club announced that it is forming a women’s team. They are the third NPB club to do so, following the Seibu Lions and the Hanshin Tigers.
The Thunder Bay (Ontario) Border Cats announced that they won’t be playing in the summer collegiate Northwoods League in 2022 due to ongoing uncertainties regarding vaccination status and the requirement for COVID19 testing at the Canadian border. The Minnesota Mud Puppies will replace the Border Cats in the 22-team league.
Regular readers of this column — ditto people who follow me on Twitter — know that I like to share statistical comps. Presented in snapshot fashion, they often show strikingly similar numbers for players who aren’t widely viewed as being equals. For the most part, the object isn’t to suggest that they are. Rather, it’s to make readers think, and to perhaps research and/or reassess one (or both) of the players.
A few days ago, I tweeted the following;
Lemon: 3,038 TB, .356 wOBA, 122 wRC+, 55.6 bWAR.
Mauer: 3,040 TB, .358 wOBA, 123 wRC+, 55.2 bWAR.
One of my followers opined that it might be the single worst comparison he’s ever seen, adding that if you look only at those stats and never saw Mauer play, you “could sell that to someone that doesn’t get baseball. Otherwise it’s laughable.”
The commenter quite clearly felt that I was saying that Lemon was equal to, or better than Mauer. Again, that’s typically not the point of these comps. Moreover, I’m of the opinion that Mauer was the better of the two. That said, there’s a pretty decent chance that the commenter, and many others who saw the tweet, are guilty of under-appreciating just how good Chet Lemon actually was. That was the point.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
Our Esquina’s José de Jesus Ortiz explained his Hall of Fame ballot, which differed slightly from the one he filled out last year.
At Bless You Boys, Brandon Day looked at the 2021 Detroit Tigers pitching staff through the lens of DRA.
Larry Bird once played college baseball on a dare. James Dator has the details at SBNation.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Fernando Hernandez has the highest career ERA among pitchers who have been credited with at least one win. Hernandez threw three innings for the Oakland A’s in 2008 and went 1-0 with an 18.00 ERA.
A total of 1,349 players have hit exactly one career home run in the modern era. Of them, Esteban Yan has the highest batting average (1.000). Jeremy Hefner has the lowest batting average (.038). Yan went 2-for -2. Hefner went 2-for-52.
The Cincinnati Reds purchased Johnny Vander Meer from the Boston Braves on today’s date in 1935. In 1938, the left-hander threw the first of his two consecutive no-hitters against the Boston Bees, which the Braves were known as from 1936-1940.
Players born on today’s date include Gorman Thomas, who logged a 114 wRC+ from 1983-1996 despite a batting average that never topped .259 in a full season. A career .225 hitter, “Stormin’ Gorman twice led the American League in home runs while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers. He went deep 268 times in all.
Also born on today’s date was Flea Clifton, who played in 87 games for the Detroit Tigers from 1934-1937. A utility infielder, Clifton had 39 career hits, none of which left the yard.
Allan Lewis — another player born on today’s date — was used primarily as a pinch-runner and had just 31 plate appearances in 156 games. Playing for the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics from 1967-1973, Lewis had 44 stolen bases and just six hits. He had one home run.
Con Starkel threw three innings and had an 18.00 ERA for the Washington Senators in 1906. A native of Neu-Norka, Starkel is one of nine Russian-born players in MLB history.