Livermore (Calif.) High School graduate J.R. Graham was his team's MVP in his senior year. He hit .418 with 20 RBIs. After winning a host of local and state awards, Graham chose to attend Santa Clara University, where he was a two-way player, pitching and playing infield and outfield for the Broncos in his three years there. He showed enough velocity to pitch wherever needed, starting and even closing during his tenure at the Jesuit university. In his junior year in 2011, Graham averaged only 0.68 walks per nine innings.
After Graham graduated from Livermore, the Oakland Athletics liked him enough to select him in the 46th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. But it was the fourth-round selection by the Atlanta Braves in 2011 that convinced him to become a professional pitcher.
The right-handed-pitching Graham is 24 years old and is No. 11 on the Braves' Top 20 Prospects list.
Graham does not fit the recent trend of bigger-than-life physical pitchers. In fact, he's 6 feet and he weighs just 195 pounds. Graham's strong arm is really a surprise. He has little difficulty reaching the mid-90s on his fastball and can hit 100 mph upon occasion.
Graham pitched for the Braves' Rookie-level Danville club in the Appalachian League to begin his career. He threw 57 2/3 innings, starting eight of the 13 games in which he appeared. Graham had a very fine 1.72 ERA and a WHIP of 1.13.
The following year, Graham pitched at both Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi. He had a great campaign once again, pitching exclusively as a starter and throwing 148 combined innings. Graham finished the year with a 2.80 ERA and a record of 12-2. He was named Atlanta's Organizational Pitcher of the Year.
Things changed a bit for Graham in 2013. A shoulder strain shut him down from mid-May until the end of the year.
This season, Graham has returned to Double-A Mississippi. Showing he had recovered from his shoulder woes, he had an ERA of 1.86 in five April starts. Graham was selected to the Southern League All-Star Game, where I saw him pitch this past July in Chattanooga, Tenn. He threw two-thirds of an inning, yielding a run on two hits. Graham gave up a home run to Scott Schebler of the Dodgers' organization.
While injury risk still lingers with any pitcher that has been shut down with shoulder issues, Graham did not require surgery during his time on the disabled list in 2013. When I saw him, he was throwing free and easy. Graham has a very reliable slider in the mid-80s, and an improving changeup accompanies his sinking fastball to form a repertoire that serves him well. He can use those pitches as part of the rotation or the bullpen. Graham pounds the lower portion of the strike zone, inducing enough ground balls to get out of trouble if needed.
Graham has pitched with good command and control as a professional in the Braves' organization. Mirroring his low collegiate walk rate, Graham has been able to keep his walk rate below three per nine innings for most of his Minor League career. If there is any real hiccup that may cause concern, it comes when he misses with his pitches and gets the ball up in the zone or hangs a slider. Graham can get hit hard at times. He can also escape trouble quickly by throwing his late-breaking sinker.
Graham's ability to keep hitters off balance with his fastball-slider combination is a factor that could hasten his advancement to the big leagues. Mature and confident on the mound, he has the ability to retain the same arm angle and repeat his delivery consistently from pitch to pitch. This year, left-handed batters are really scuffling against Graham's offerings, hitting only .226. Conversely, righties are hitting at a .306 clip.
Given Graham's sharp command and good control, and his experience in multiple pitching roles, Atlanta has the luxury of being able to use his high-powered fastball and secondary pitches as a starter or reliever, depending upon the team's needs.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.