When Kendall Graveman’s agent called him in August 2014 and told him the Toronto Blue Jays had added him to their 40-man roster, the then 23-year-old had to ask him what that meant.
His entire baseball career growing up, his only goal was to play SEC baseball. It’s all he knew living in a state without a professional team. Making the show? That seemed like a fantasy. One he didn’t believe until he toed the rubber in Rogers Centre.
“Four days later, the Triple-A season ended and I was going to Toronto to debut,” Graveman said. “That’s when I thought I could be a big leaguer.”
Then again, nothing about Kendall Graveman’s story is logical.
It’s illogical that a lanky 170-pound high schooler from Alexander City, Alabama would get to Mississippi State, put on 30 pounds and earn two starts in the College World Series.
It’s illogical that an eighth-round draft pick would soar through the minor leagues to reach the MLB in less than 18 months.
And it’s especially illogical that said eighth-round draft pick could, in the span of two years, undergo the career setback that is Tommy John surgery and be diagnosed with an excruciating, inoperable benign bone tumor in his neck, only to switch pitching roles and become one of the most dominant short relief hurlers in all of baseball.
“Honestly, it was the biggest blessing of my life, and I say that with confidence,” Graveman said. “I am so glad I went through both of those events in my life, because it changed me as a person, as a father, as a teammate. I’m so thankful of the person I’ve become through those trials and those tribulations.”
Graveman received an early introduction to baseball thanks to his father, Gary Graveman, who’s coached the sport for decades. Fourteen of those years are with Benjamin Russell’s outfit.
“He was always very competitive growing up,” Gary Graveman said. “I would always think that he was a humble person. I remember, there would be articles written about him in the Outlook, even to this day, he doesn’t even look at them. He’s never been one of those people where (recognition) was important to him.”
When he reached high school, Kendall Graveman didn’t strike Benjamin Russell head coach Richy Brooks as a clear future big-league superstar.
One of the team’s best players, undoubtedly, but it wasn’t Graveman’s raw talent that impressed Brooks during his time with the Wildcats.
“He remains the hardest worker we’ve ever had come through the program,” Brooks said. “When one of your best players is the hardest worker, you usually have a good team because others see that, and they kind of fall into that role.”
Brooks added Graveman’s cerebral nature and well-rounded gamesmanship ― he was one of the Wildcats’ best fielders, even on the mound ― contributed to his future success.
Those traits are probably part of what impressed Butch Thompson, then Auburn University’s pitching coach, about Graveman.
On the word of former long-time Cincinnati Red Scott Sullivan, Thompson made the trip down to Alex City to watch Graveman pitch. It happened to be one of his best starts against elite in-state competition from Auburn High School.
Thompson soon offered him a combined athletic and academic scholarship to Auburn, which translated to an offer from Mississippi State after Thompson was scooped up by the Bulldogs’ staff.
In four seasons with Mississippi State Graveman went 19-13 with a 3.69 ERA and served as a team captain in 2013. The Bulldogs went to the College World Series that year, and Graveman served as the winning pitcher in the semifinals against Oregon State.
Toronto picked him up in the eighth round of the MLB Draft that year. He gave himself three years before he’d “evaluate his options,” not wanting to get stuck in the minors.
“I still don’t believe I’m the most talented. That’s why I feel like I have to outwork people,” Graveman said.
He spent the remainder of 2013 in rookie ball and earned a promotion to high Class A.
Then 2014 rolled around. Kendall Graveman would call Gary Graveman after many of his starts in the minors or when he had news, which kept whistling through for the then-Blue Jay.
It seemed every month the younger Graveman earned a promotion. To Double-A, then Triple-A, until he got the call every baseball player dreams of.
“It was just a blessing that he was able to do that in one year,” Gary Graveman said. “Nobody expected that. He just excelled at every level.”
Four years later, Kendall Graveman’s phone conversations with his father struck an entirely different tone.
A UCL tear in his pitching elbow demanded a remedy universal to afflicted pitchers, Tommy John surgery. The recovery process takes a year.
Rehab wasn’t a concern for Graveman. Advances in sports medicine have it down to an exact science.
“I was not worried about the elbow. I was putting in enough work, and I knew the success rate of Tommy John surgery,” Graveman said.
But three months into his recovery, he noticed something else was wrong. Unrelenting neck pain.
Graveman said he didn’t think much about it at first, considering it a post-surgery complication.
Doctors eventually diagnosed him with a benign bone tumor in his cervical spine. And after seeing several of the best specialists he and his team could find, they came to a sobering conclusion ― it was inoperable at this stage. Too close to his spinal cord.
His baseball career suddenly seemed to be in serious jeopardy. He made two starts but couldn’t get beyond 50 or 60 pitches due to the pain. The Mariners wanted to place him on the 60-day Injured List, which would have ended his 2020 season.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to throw a baseball without pain ever again,” Graveman said. “Those days go by, and it makes for a long day. When you wake up and the pain’s there, and then you go to sleep hoping that you wake up the next morning without pain. And for two straight years you do that. It wears on you a little bit mentally, but at the end of the day it’s created somebody in me that I’ve always hoped to be.”
Graveman described the feeling as a sledgehammer smashing into the back of his neck every time he pitched.
In those days, he often relied on faith to carry him through. He prayed with his wife and their child. He prayed with Gary Graveman. He even prayed with his trainer, Cal Tinsley, owner of Tinsley Performance in Pelham, Alabama and former director of strength and conditioning at Champion Sports Medicine in Birmingham.
“His faith in Christ, that’s his background, and that’s why he’s doing what he’s doing,” Tinsley said. “I think that the Lord has blessed his time in the league physically because he’s there to be a spiritual influence and a light in a dark world.”
Graveman remains thankful for the experience. It allowed him to look inward. He got to be with his family more.
“At the end of the day, before my Tommy John surgery, it was the big league life and money, and I had little sense of who I was,” Graveman said. “When everything was taken away, I felt anonymous. After being in big-league stadiums in front of tens of thousands of people every night, you go to Arizona rehabbing in a training facility with 16- and 17-year-old kids who just got drafted to the big leagues. And for me, that was the best thing that could have happened.”
A solution finally presented itself to Graveman, a rather rudimentary one. If he took enough Aspirin, he could relieve the pain to a point where he could pitch for a little while. Not enough to return to his role as a starter, but his career could go on if he came out of the bullpen. He called Seattle’s front office and explained the situation.
By the end of the 2020 season, he was back as a reliever for Seattle.
Entering 2021, he and Tinsley made a full commitment to the change in roles. They focused much less on endurance and much more on power.
“Our goal was to add mass,” Tinsley said. “Not doing anything on the side of, ‘Hey, we’re trying to go seven, eight, nine innings,’ but more of, ‘Hey, we’re gonna throw 15 pitches, all out, max effort. What do we need to do on our side to make sure your arm can handle the increased velocity, increased stress?’”
It’s borderline inconceivable how good Graveman’s numbers are this year.
In six seasons prior to 2021, the Alex City product had never posted a qualified big-league ERA below 4.05. Through 30 innings, his ERA is 0.90. He has nine saves to lead the Mariners. His strikeout to walk ratio is the best it’s ever been, with 29 fans against just six free passes.
Graveman worked relentlessly with Tinsley to get there. During the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic he and Tinsley trained in the strength coach’s garage at 6 a.m. With nutrition being the main component to adding weight, Tinsley said, Graveman ate every two hours, going from 215 pounds to 230.
Now he’s the Seattle Mariners’ premier reliever, moving to the esteemed role of closer for the west-coast squad.
“So far he’s excelled in that area, coming out of the ‘pen, and I think he enjoys it,” Gary Graveman said. “He tells me he’d rather come out of the ‘pen than start now.”
Through his work with Tinsley, Kendall Graveman added extra velocity onto his pitches.
His most deadly pitch is designated a sinker by most sources but is called a 2-seam fastball by Tinsley, and either designation is probably fair because it has both tremendous sinking action and devastating arm-side run. It has touched 99 miles per hour this season and averages more than 96.
He’s also developed his once rarely-used slider into another effective put-away pitch.
Combined with seven years of major league experience and the above-mentioned competitive edge, the move to reliever is proving a phenomenal one for Graveman.
“The situations that I’ve been coming into this year [as the closer], when you’re at home and up, it’s loud, when you’re on the road and they’re trying to mount a comeback, there’s energy and excitement in the stadium,” Graveman said. “But I tell myself all the time, I have to be the calmest person in the stadium. Just the ability to slow the game down is why I’ve fit into the role.”
Doctors told him that the tumor would eventually burn off and start producing less and less discomfort. Graveman feels as though he’s reached that point now.
Even as his career has progressed, he’s made an effort to return to Benjamin Russell when he can, helping the ballplayers at his former prep school.
Brooks has been blown away by Graveman’s humility, even as he’s enjoyed the highest successes of the sport.
“He’ll be the first to tell you he’s been blessed, because he’s one of the most humble guys I know,” Brooks said.
Graveman’s path to arrive at the top of a big league bullpen may not have been a logical one. But it’s hard to argue he hasn’t earned every step.