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Graham Stoneburner: The Quiet Untouchable

By Joseph Delgrippo ~ August 1st, 2011. Filed under: Digest Contributors, Yanks Minors.

Now that the MLB trade deadline has come and gone, the New York Yankees can back to the business of winning baseball games with their current roster. They did not trade for a starting pitcher, alienating many Yankee fans. It was the first time since 1998 the Yankees did not make any trades before the deadline.

Two of the players talked about quite a bit in a possible Yankee trade for a starting pitcher have been LHP Manny Banuelos and C/DH Jesus Montero.

Banuelos was since promoted to Triple-A Scranton, and will make his debut Tuesday night, while there are recent reports the Yankees are intent on finally promoting Montero to the big league club, likely sometime this week.

These two players are the top Yankee prospects and deserve every right to an opportunity to help the big club, but they are not the only prospects on the Yankee map. Big RHP Dellin Betances is also being counted on in the future, and should also be promoted to Triple-A soon.

There, Banuelos and Betances will join former Tampa Yankee teammate Adam Warren in the now, prospect laden Triple-A rotation. All three were discussed in recent trade talk, but when I was at the winter meeting in Orlando last December, it was well-known that both of the young B&B hurlers were virtually off limits. The Yankees were adamant about not trading them last winter, and sticking to GM Brian Cashman’s new found love for his young players, the GM decided once again to not trade either for a starting pitcher who would likely not be better what the Yankees are currently running out to the mound each day.

However, I found out last winter that one other Yankee hurler was off limits and deemed an untouchable. No, not the next contestant on the new reality show “Project Bust,” Andrew Brackman.

The untouchable was RHP Graham Stoneburner, one of the fast risers in the Yankee system. Drafted in 2009 out of Clemson, Stoneburner pitched one meaningless inning for short-season Staten Island before he was asked to close out the NY-Penn League Championship game. Stoneburner was ready for the call, getting three weakly hit ground balls to help SI win that 2009 title.

I heard from a Yankee source that they were interested to see how Graham would fare “right out of the chute.” He was humming 95 and sawing off bats. The Yankees liked Stoneburner’s tremendous command over his mid-90s heat, wicked slider and above average changeup. With that combination, the Yankees thought he could be an effective late inning reliever.

After his first taste of pro ball, Stoneburner was sent to Low A Charleston to begin his first full season in  2010, where he dominated the league in his seven starts. You can read about his Lakewood appearance here.

Stoner was gassing the ball late in that Lakewood game, hitting 95 MPH on his 95th (and final) pitch of that day. After his in-season promotion to Tampa, he continued to perform well, going 8-5 with a 2.53 ERA in 19 starts. I saw two of his starts during my time watching that Tampa team play for a week. Stoner was his usual self pitching in Tampa, throwing hard fastballs to both sides of the plate and mixing in his sharp-breaking slider and changeup.

He started the 2011 season in Double-A Trenton and was throwing well, but then was placed on the disabled list with a stiff neck. It was the worst neck issue of all time as Stoneburner missed two months before being allowed to throw in rehab games.

After an inordinate amount of rehab games (7 total in the GCL and Tampa), Stoneburner started Friday night in his return to Double-A. It was a double dose of prospect pitching as the Trenton Thunder were facing San Francisco Giants prospect Eric Surkamp…for the fourth time this season.

Stoneburner went six innings allowing one earned run on six hits, striking out six and walking one. He was pretty much the same pitcher, moving the ball in and out, mixing his pitches well and getting swings and misses on his slider. The only difference was his velocity, which was not the 92-95 I had seen in the in 2010, but was generally 88-91 all night, but with better movement from what I remember.

His mechanics were very similar with a pretty clean delivery with good timing, but a slightly long arm action in the back where his arm goes behind his back, similar to how the Giants Madison Bumgarner throws but not as long in the back as the Giants lefty.

Although his path to the plate is very straight, Stoneburner’s stride is short (but similar to last season), and he lands nicely on his front toes. But he sometimes lands solely on his toes, putting him off a little off balance. He could use lengthen the stride another half a foot.

His slider was still tight, running in the low 80s, but was left up a couple times. He did not throw as many change ups as he has in the past but when he did, the ball had good downward movement.

The big issue, however, was the reduced velocity. Since the game was delayed two hours by rain, I did not stick around after he was pulled to find out if there was a specific reason for the lower velocity. I also do not know, but want to find out, if he was throwing in the 88-91 range earlier in this season while in Trenton or what his velocity was during his seven rehab appearances.

I am sure I will hear about the typical “arm strength” garbage, but velocity is generated by an explosive stride and the corresponding hip/trunk rotation. The quicker a pitcher moves to the plate and brings through his hips, generally the higher the velocity. Think Tim Lincecum and Trevor Bauer, smaller guys with explosive action to the plate.

The reduced velocity might be similar to what occurred with Bumgarner, who used to throw 95 MPH a few years ago, but now is regularly in the 89-91 range now. That long arm action in the back may cause an issue with the shoulder, with shoulder issues one of the primary causes for unexplained reductions in velocity.

Stoneburner threw well Friday night, but did miss with his fastball location on occasion, balls which were hit well. Higher velocity probably gets him out of those misses, same as they did last year. When he was in trouble last season, he could always rely on blowing the ball by hitters.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how Stoneburner’s velocity is throughout the balance of the season.

Pitching against Stoneburner was Eric Surkamp, a finesse lefty who has one of the best curveballs in pro baseball. Surkamp was an important study since he does not overly impress with what most scouts look for, velocity and power, but he still generates lots of swing and misses with a tremendous spiked curve ball. In addition, Surkamp was talked about as a possible trade chip with the New York Mets in the Carlos Beltran deal, before the Mets got what they wanted, the high velocity RHP Zack Wheeler.

He followed former high school teammate Andrew Brackman to North Carolina State and was the Giants 6th round pick in 2008.

As mentioned earlier, this was Surkamp’s fourth appearance versus the Thunder, who had allowed only three runs in 17 innings, while striking out 27. And this is Surkamp’s forte, the strikeout, primarily the swinging strikeout on curve balls not near the strike zone.

On this night, Surkamp was typical with a fastball in the high 80s, touching 90 MPH, and with what appeared to be two different types of curve balls. He used a normal breaking curve early in the count and the sharp downward breaking spiked curve to generate the strikeout.

And as much as scout Mel Didier was sure Dennis Eckersley would throw Kirk Gibson a 3-2 backdoor slider, I am pretty darn sure that Eric Surkamp will throw any hitter a two-strike spiked curve. Surkamp threw it very often on Friday night, using the devastating pitch to strike out 12 Thunder batters, and those who did put bat on spiked curve did not do so with any authority.

He threw it to both left and right-handed hitters, and many times back-to-back. Ahead one time 0-2, Surkamp threw the pitch three straight times to a left handed hitter, finally getting the swing and miss. It is a pitch which is similar to a slider but with a tighter rotation and either dropped straight down or moves down and in to righties or away (like a slider) from a lefty. This different movement on the pitch is one of the variables to the spiked curve, a pitch which is difficult to control and command.

Very few pitchers have the ability to throw it for strikes, one being Mike Mussina, former Baltimore Oriole and New York Yankee future Hall of Famer. Surkamp did not command the pitch well Friday night, with about a dozen pitches landing in front of the plate, but many hitters went after the ball anyway.

Surkamp throws a little across his body and lands on a very stiff front leg. He also has a bit of a long delivery in the back. He generally worked ahead in the count, mostly working away and when he got two strikes on the hitter, he usually put them away. His changeup was good, but not great, although a few had good downward action but little tailing movement.

I feel Surkamp can be hit if you attack very early in the at bat and stay away from two strike counts.

His career numbers reveal a K/9 ratio of 11.0 (440 Ks in 363 IP) and despite the command issues, his career walk rate is a respectable 2.5 per 9 IP. He has pitched very well at each level, staying at each for a full season and has lowered his ERA each year, even while advancing to higher levels.

Surkamp is a strikeout artist, missing bats at a very high level, but does not possess the other traits which scouts drool over. His out pitch spiked curve is very devastating but, unless he can command it better and throw it for strikes, it might not work at higher levels as better hitters will have the ability to lay off the pitch.

His performance the other night was not perfect, but pretty good, and with his success thus far in Double A, the Giants should promote Surkamp for the first time mid-season. Thunder hitters who had seen him many times before still had trouble adjusting to the spiked curve.

The Giants need to find out how he fares against higher competition including many former big league hitters. He needs to be pushed right now, as the Giants have very little pitching depth in the higher levels.

Joseph Delgrippo is an aspiring sportswriter and TV baseball analyst. He played NCAA baseball, at tiny Marietta (OH) College, participating in the Division 3 World Series. In addition, he's coached baseball at the high school level. His knowledge of this game goes far beyond what is shown on television.
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2 Responses to Graham Stoneburner: The Quiet Untouchable

  1. Chuck Johnson

    Great article, Joe.

    I’m thinking maybe we’ll see Stoneburner in the AFL?

  2. Chuck Johnson

    After his last start, I don’t see it.

    May have been the worst start I’ve seen all season, he was awful.

    But like the Harvey comps, it means very little because it’s only one start of 20 or so.

    Maybe Betances or Warren come to Arizona, or someone they have roster decisions on, like Brackman.

    But I don’t see Stoneburner coming out.

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