The first thing that pops out about J.R. Graham's scouting profile is that he can hit 100 mph on the radar gun.
A reliever in college who was picked by Atlanta in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft, Graham spent the past two seasons learning the finer points of being a starter. That's meant, at times, less of a focus on hitting triple digits and more on working through a lineup a third or fourth time.
Though the project may be in its infancy, it's hard to find anything that suggests it isn't on track toward working out.
The 23-year-old carries little in the way of blemishes on his statistical record so far. In his 2011 debut with Rookie-level Danville, Graham made 13 appearances, eight of them starts. He registered a 1.72 ERA and struck out 52 while walking just 13 in 57 2/3 innings.
His follow-up in 2012 was perhaps even more encouraging. The Braves' fourth-ranked prospect worked his way up to Double-A Mississippi and found success, going 3-1 with a 3.18 ERA after going 9-1 with a 2.63 ERA for Class A Advanced Lynchburg. In all, he struck out 148 and walked only 34 in 148 frames last year, registering a 2.80 ERA between the two levels.
His upside, at least for now, should look familiar to Atlanta fans. Tim Hudson similarly came up as a hard-throwing righty, who over time, became stingy with walks and developed into a ground-ball machine. Graham, it should be noted, got plenty of opportunities to observe that style of pitching, having grown up 30 miles from Oakland in Livermore, Calif., while Hudson was an All-Star for the A's.
Graham spoke with MiLB.com about his abilities as a power pitcher, the switch from relief to starting and how apt that popular comparison to Hudson actually is.
MiLB.com: Do you still try to reach 100 pretty regularly or have you settled more into the high 90s?
J.R. Graham: Just kind of depends on what I'm throwing. Out here at big league camp, I touched 100 a couple times. It's something I have in the tank, but usually I start off in the mid-to-high 90s. I know I can run it up there.
MiLB.com: Is that part of the process for you of learning to be a starter, knowing when to save something like that?
Graham: It has been a process, becoming a pitcher rather than a thrower. When I was young, I did kind of worry about the velocity. When you're getting drafted and you see the scouts with the radar guns, everyone is trying to throw pretty hard. It's a game-changer when you can get to that 95-plus range, but it's not really a goal of mine to throw that hard. Learning to pitch is a whole different game, being able to hit the spots.
MiLB.com: With your history as a reliever and the kind of arm you have, do you ever think going back into the bullpen is an option?
Graham: I can do whatever. I went to big league camp, and just the way it worked out got a lot of relief innings. I did well there, and then I was sent to Minor League camp to get extended innings. I can do both -- there's not a preference, both are fun, both different. If I moved back to the 'pen, it wouldn't be a bad thing but as long as I can start, I want to.
MiLB.com: What's the most difficult part about that kind of transition?
Graham: Just the workload -- going from the one inning, where it's pretty easy to recover, into that starting role. And getting through a lineup two, three, four times. In a relieving role you're going to face three, four, five guys, maybe six if you're going two innings. You can get by -- you don't have to be as precise with pitches. Guys won't know you as well. But once you're in that starting role and they see you the third, fourth time you have to mix in a couple other pitches to get them out.
MiLB.com: With your build and pitching style, it's pretty easy to compare you to a young Tim Hudson. Have you heard that and do you think it's accurate?
Graham: I've heard a couple comparisons like that. It's funny you say that 'cause he was the guy I kind of looked up to, growing up in the Bay Area and being an Oakland fan. It's cool to play with him. I'm not trying to mold myself after him, but coming up through the Braves system, once I was in that starting role, you see the guys talking about the high K-rates. He's a dominant pitcher, but watching him, talking to him, it's not always about the strikeouts. If you're getting that early contact, you go deep into games.
MiLB.com: Is that the kind of pitcher you're looking to be. Groundouts, few strikeouts, keep the walks down?
Graham: Going back into college, something I prided myself on was not walking people. As long as I'm around the plate I feel I'm gonna beat the hitter most of the time. I don't like giving free passes. If I can get the ball in play, I think I'll be good.
MiLB.com To change track a little bit, you went on the Braves Caravan this winter. Did you have a good time with that -- any funny stories?
Graham: I had a blast, we went to a VA hospital in Augusta, Ga., and they have a rock climbing wall for rehabilitation. They're telling me at first, "Hey, yeah, you get to do it," and [Freddie] Freeman went and he took a while. And then [Tyler] Pastornicky is strapping up and they're telling me, "I don't think you'll get to go," and I'm pretty disappointed. But then someone said I can strap up. I got up there and flew up the wall pretty quick -- it was pretty fun. That was something I really wanted to do -- I was in these cowboy boots climbing up a rock wall.
Freeman and Pastornicky were great guys, treated me well. A lot of the older guys with the Braves, guys who have been in the league, they do a great job of making the younger guys feel welcome.
MiLB.com: And lastly for you, growing up in a place like the Bay Area out in California, having been there all your life, has it been weird traveling through and living in all these relatively smaller Southern towns?
Graham: It was kind of different at first. Going to play in Danville [in 2011], the only Danville I knew of was Danville, Calif. It was weird but it was a lot of fun. Over in California, you get a bit sheltered, so it's cool to see all these kind of places.