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How Kendall Graveman has boosted White Sox’ bullpen – and how Joe Kelly can make it even better

Vinnie Duber Avatar
May 2, 2022

A month into their 2022 campaign, one that still holds World Series expectations, the White Sox have not looked as advertised.

Playing in a Central Division they were supposed to run away with, they woke up Monday in third place, with just one fewer loss than the last-place Tigers, the team that was supposed to offer the stiffest competition to another double-digit margin in the final standings. The offense has been mostly silent, there has been a tidal wave of early season injuries, and the defense leads the sport in errors.

On the heels of an interrupted offseason of front-office work that had a sizable portion of the fan base begging for more, though, the team’s biggest wintertime acquisition has been one of the few to deliver as promised.

Kendall Graveman has been – apart from the out-of-nowhere relief dominance of minor league journeyman Tanner Banks – the team’s finest bullpen arm, backing up the multi-year free-agent deal he got before the lockout started by being as reliable as they come late in games.

“He’s been awesome,” Aaron Bummer told CHGO. “He’s been kind of that glue guy that’s been able to bridge the gap to get the ball to Liam (Hendriks) pretty consistently. Honestly, man, he’s a lot of fun to watch pitch.

“What he’s able to do with his sinker, what he’s able to do with his four-seam (fastball) and just kind of the process that he uses when he’s pitching, it’s a lot of fun to watch. He executes at a really high clip, and he’s been absolute nails down there.”

Graveman allowed only a couple earned runs in his first 10 appearances in a White Sox uniform, showing an ability to shut down opposing lineups in crucial situations, step into jams and get out of them and throw multiple scoreless innings at a time. He was acquired to fill the role that Craig Kimbrel was supposed to when the White Sox traded for him last summer: a, to borrow a term, “nails” setup man in front of Hendriks.

But in addition to Graveman’s on-mound efforts, what he’s done behind the scenes has been a boon to a White Sox bullpen that – thanks to injuries to Joe Kelly, Garrett Crochet and Ryan Burr – started the season a little less experienced than planned. Graveman immediately stepped into a mentorship role and has made an effort to reach out to several of the team’s young pitchers, exposing them to the kind of preparation he’s made a habit of during his big league career.

“He’s done a real good job. It reminds me a lot of when (Lance) Lynn showed up here last year,” Tony La Russa said. “It’s a very mentoring kind of thing. Graveman, he knows how he got to where he is, and he shares it. He’s very smart about making it individual. He doesn’t tell the same thing to each guy.”

“He’s obviously a great player, been doing it for a while,” Bennett Sousa told CHGO. “He’s also a great leader for the bullpen, too, especially for a guy like myself to look at him and some other older guys in our bullpen, especially being a rookie. … You’re watching him out there handle his business, and it motivates you. But he’s come up to me several times, helping me in certain situations and helping me learn the game a lot more.”

It’s the kind of presence that shows why Graveman has long been thought of as an exemplary teammate, the kind of impact that explains the tear-filled reactions of his Mariners teammates when he was traded to the division-rival Astros last summer.

“That’s something that, I guess, my dad always instilled in me at a young age is to continue to try to help everyone around you and also try to get better yourself. So that’s one thing that I enjoy doing,” Graveman said. “I enjoy showing up to the field for that aspect because I want to see guys – I don’t ever want to see guys on my team struggle. And I always want, if I can have any benefit in their career, to be able to do that. … I just want to be able to see guys succeed. And that’s the honest truth. And if they succeed and we succeed together, then our team is better because of it.

“You can go years without having a guy invest in your career, another teammate, which is sad. I don’t think it’s gone that way in the past, but today’s game, a lot of guys are kind of just doing their own thing. And they have so many outside sources to try to help. But at the end of the day, we’re together (for) so long in a day. I see these guys more, sometimes, than I see my family in a season. … They grow to become my family, so I want to continue to help.”

Graveman joined a bullpen family that already boasted one of baseball’s finest arms in Hendriks, the two-time reigning AL Reliever of the Year. But as Hendriks put it, the relief corps has benefitted from adding Graveman’s different perspective.

While the two each boast a recent track record of relief excellence, they’ve reached their respective heights thanks to dramatically different approaches. While Hendriks has been able to help younger guys who respond well to his approach, Graveman has been able to reach others who like to go about things a little differently. That, Hendriks said, is where Graveman can bring even more value.

“He just brings a different vibe,” Hendriks told CHGO. “Some of the guys last year, we were a little bit more ‘go with the flow’ and loose. And that works for a lot of us, but sometimes it doesn’t. Some guys need that structure, which is more his style of things. It’s doing the research, doing this, doing that and making sure that he’s fully prepared. And that’s going to be beneficial for some of the guys out there.

“We’ve got two very different, polarizing personalities at the back end, and I think that’s only going to help as guys realize who they are and what’s going to make them more successful, whether it be the locking in and making sure you’re aware of what’s going on, or the loosey-goosey, ‘go with the flow’ and ‘whenever the phone rings, go for it’ kind of deal.

“We’re both very different, not only in the ways we pitch, but also in the way that we go about doing things. The more guys you’re around, the more you’re going to be able to help more people out, whether it be in spring training, whether it be during the season, whether it be during the playoffs, wherever it is. You’re going to be able to bring in those different guys and actually tap that full potential.”

But if you’re talking about personalities, you have to include the guy who hasn’t even gotten here yet.

Kelly spent the season’s first month continuing to rehab in Arizona, where the White Sox wanted him to make a measured recovery from a nerve issue that started bothering him toward the end of last season. It didn’t stop them from handing him a free-agent deal during spring training, another contract for a veteran reliever to bolster an already strong back end, and he made his first rehab appearance with Triple-A Charlotte on Sunday – striking out one batter in a scoreless inning – moving closer to his arrival on the South Side.

Kelly’s been there and done that, winning a pair of World Series rings with the Red Sox and Dodgers. But he’s best known for his 2020 confrontation with the Astros, nearly hitting Alex Bregman with a pitch and then making an infamous pouty face at Carlos Correa – now a division rival playing for the Twins – before sparking a benches-clearing incident.

Kelly became an instant hero to many fans furious about the Astros’ cheating scandal, and certainly he must have won over more than a couple big league pitchers who held similar grudges about all the sign stealing that went on in Houston.

Whether because of that or the little his new teammates got to know of him during spring training, the mere mention of Kelly’s name generated smiles and chuckles in the White Sox clubhouse.

“It’s going to be awesome,” Bummer said of getting Kelly back. “We spent a little bit of time with Joe during spring training, and I’m excited to get to know him a little bit more and (see) what he’s able to add to the bullpen with his power stuff and his experience. … Just his experience and who Joe Kelly is as a person, he’s going to be a great fit for our team. He’s going to add an edge. He’s going to add an edge to all of us.”

“He brings a lot of serious stuff in his track record in the big leagues and a mentality that’s much needed in any team,” Graveman said. “He’s a competitor, wants to get outs. The more guys you got like that, the better. … We need guys like that. … He has a sense of knowing when to have a good time, to keep it light and laugh and joke. But he also has a switch he can turn when it’s go time. Guys enjoy that. (And) the way he cares for everyone, especially guys in his uniform. He’s a loyal guy, the most loyal guy I’ve been around. And when you’re inside his family and circle and team, he’ll do anything to take care of you.”

Though Crochet is down for the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, the White Sox’ bullpen family is getting whole again, with Burr already back from his injured-list stay and Kelly nearing the end of his. While Hendriks and Bummer have experienced relative struggles in the early going, Kelly’s return teamed with Graveman’s success will give the White Sox the potentially menacing back end they hoped for, the kind of group that makes a run deep into October – when bullpens tend to take center stage – seem possible.

And if the influence of those guys’ personalities on the rest of the arms down there continues, that group could be even bigger and even more primed for postseason success.

“Being able to have the guys down there go out and continue to do our job, it’s been a lot of fun,” Bummer said. “Young guys are getting their chances to go out there and compete and pitch in leverage situations. Together, as a whole, we’re starting to build chemistry out there, being able to rely on each other, continuing to form that bond that propels bullpens throughout an entire season.”

“Once we get everybody rolling in the same direction,” Hendriks said, “it’s a good group of guys out there. It’s a fun ‘pen to be around. There’s some different personalities, but we’re meshing well right now.”

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