By: Noah Frank
The title of this article is, admittedly, a bit deceiving. It is, in fact, far easier to catch up with than it is to catch up to Tyler Graham. Of course, I don’t have to tell that to any Grizzlies fan, nor any battery in the Pacific Coast League. Ever since Graham received a chance promotion from Double-A in early May of 2010, he has thrilled the Fresno crowds with his blazing speed. After two big years in Triple-A, including a franchise record-shattering 60 stolen base performance in 2011, Graham has run all the way onto the San Francisco Giants 40-man roster.
For those who are not as familiar with baseball’s intricate rules surrounding its various player designations, the 40-man roster serves several purposes. It is the group from which the 25-man active Major League roster is derived. One cannot become a Major Leaguer before first being added to the 40-man. The act of adding a new player to that roster is called “purchasing a contract”, and is what happened to both Brett Pill and Justin Christian in September.
Residency on the 40-man also protects a player like Graham from the upcoming Rule V Draft, which I will leave you to read about in further detail here, should you choose to do so. Finally, it means an automatic invitation to Major League Spring Training next spring, which will be a first for Graham in his seven-year tenure in the Giants organization after being selected in the 19th round out of Oregon State in 2006.
The speedy center fielder found out about his addition to the roster via text message on Friday night in Culiacan, Mexico, where he is currently playing winter ball for the Tomateros (which, according to Google Translate, means “fryers”). Graham also received a follow-up phone call from Giants VP of Baseball Operations Bobby Evans with the good news.
“Obviously I’m very excited,” he said over the crackling line of an international cell phone call on Monday. “It’s always positive to know you have the backing of the coaching staff and front office. It means a lot that they believe you can play at that level, gives you the extra confidence to get the job done.”
Graham is a native of Great Falls, Montana. To suggest that his hometown lies on the periphery of the baseball world would be kind. In fact, according to baseball-almanac.com, Graham’s home state has produced just 21 Major Leaguers in the history of the sport, including just one— Mets catcher John Gibbons, who played in a grand total of 18 games over two seasons— from Great Falls. Not that any of this matters, particularly, except to say that Graham certainly came in to professional ball with no particular advantages over any of his peers as he tried to fight for respect, and playing time, throughout the minors.
There was another battle that Graham faced early in his career, though, that as Graham matured, he realized he needed to better prepare himself to fight.
“I kind of always felt I was put on the back burner, mostly because I wasn’t able to stay healthy the first couple of years,” he admitted. “At the time I didn’t think it was fair, but over time I’ve realized how important it is to stay healthy and on the field. I knew I could play, but it was more that I to prove to them that I could stay healthy than that I could play.”
Graham has been able to keep himself on the field the last couple of seasons, during which he has played in 236 games with the Grizzlies, but he has made just 847 plate appearances over that span. By comparison, Boston center fielder and leadoff hitter (as well as Graham’s former teammate at Oregon State) Jacoby Ellsbury stepped to the plate 729 times this season alone over 158 games, and the Pirates Andrew McCutchen (another leadoff-type center fielder) 678 times over the same amount of games.
It stands to reason that, should he stay healthy, one could best compare Graham’s potential opportunities (in plate appearances alone, not comparing their specific skill sets) at the next level to McCutchen’s. After all, Pittsburgh had the National League’s third-worst run-scoring offense, the Pirates’ .244 team batting average just marginally higher than the Giants’ .242. I use this comparison to try to show what Graham might be capable of over a similar amount of offensive opportunities. Graham’s two-season plate appearance total is almost exactly 25% more than McCutchen’s numbers from last year alone. If we adjust Graham’s plate appearance numbers to match McCutchen’s, we come up with the following line:
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that these numbers will translate across the board at the Major League level. The quality of pitching in the National League is undisputedly better than that in the PCL. But the precipitous drop-off that we are often cautioned to expect from hitters that graduate out of our circuit is perhaps not as easily applied to Graham. After all, the notion is that power numbers will dissipate, turning home runs into doubles at best, long fly ball outs at worst. Graham has never been a power hitter, and makes his living with line drives and worm-burners. So while it is conceivable that stronger infield defenses will take a hit away here or there, the parks themselves should not work against his ability to succeed.
It is more notable to mention that Graham’s 76 stolen bases would have led the Major Leagues by 15 over Michael Bourn, who had 12 more swipes than the next closest big leaguer in 2011 (Coco Crisp/Brett Gardner, 49). Granted, Graham will need to continue to find ways on base to be able to come close to replicating those figures, but it is an impressive total, nonetheless.
“Obviously there are going to be times at the next level where I won’t be able to (steal)”, Graham recognized. “But I definitely will continue to be aggressive in the right situations as long as I play this game. That’s what makes me the player that I am.”
Another way in which Graham’s speed defines him, one that is often overlooked, is his outfield defense. Capable of playing all three positions, he has shown flashes of ability as a plus defender in center field, one of baseball’s most demanding positions. Always with an eye on how talent will translate at the Major League level, there is no doubt that the Giants place a premium on outfielders who can cover AT&T Park’s expansive outfield. While Gary Brown is the eventual heir apparent in that space, Graham’s name is now in the mix along with the likes of Christian and Andres Torres to show what he is capable of in 2012.
“I think that’s a big reason they do believe in me is the defense I bring to the table,” explained Graham of the Giants front office. “Saving runs in the outfield is the same as RBI at the plate. If you can save a couple runs during the week it’s the same as being a power hitter … at the end of the day whether you do something at the plate or in the field, your job is to help the team win.”
Knowing that his naturally spry legs are what lend him both his baserunning ability and outfield range, Graham’s priority has become keeping himself healthy. With those first two years cut short by injury, he had to rethink his commitment to keeping his body in top shape. It was perhaps fitting, then, that his big break (so to speak) came when a more highly-touted player in front of him on the depth chart, Mike McBryde, suffered a broken hand while playing in Fresno last season.
“When I found out that McBryde was hurt, I decided that this was finally my chance,” Graham remembered. “I started to get excited. I knew I was going to have a good chance to be in the lineup every day, to put up some good numbers.”
With no other true center fielder on the roster, Graham— who had been riding the bench in Double-A following his own injury on Opening Day— found himself in the lineup early and often. He made the most of his chances, going 13-for-23 (.565) with four doubles, six runs scored, four RBI and four stolen bases over his first eight games, and going on to hit .343 with 35 stolen bases.
The rest, as they say, has been history. Specifically, franchise history, both in the form of the single-season (60) and career (95) franchise stolen base record here in Fresno. Graham’s focus now is on doing what he has done successfully the last couple of years, preparing himself to be ready to hit the ground running in Scottsdale in February.
“I’m going to be doing the same offseason program I always do,” he said. “I just need to get ready to be in as good of shape as I can.”