ARLINGTON, Texas — It actually happened on Friday, and it was just as overwhelming as Twins fans had fantasized about. Brusdar Graterol, possessor of perhaps the strongest arm that has ever thrown a pitch for Minnesota, took the mound in the World Series and proceeded to scorch batters with triple-digit heat.
And if Minnesotans had known only nine months ago that they would be reading that sentence today, just imagine the thrill they would have felt.
Turns out, though, that Graterol is a Dodger, the Twins are watching on TV, and even the Venezuelan righthander, still only 22, is surprised that his cap says LA and not TC.
“Yeah, it was very unexpected at the time,” Graterol said of the Feb. 10 trade that shipped the Twins’ most prized pitching prospect to the West Coast. “I got to my new club and I said, just start working. Do the things I need to do to better myself.”
The Twins have no regrets, no second thoughts. By coincidence, Graterol’s World Series debut came on the same day that Kenta Maeda, the starter they received in return for Graterol, was named Twins Pitcher of the Year. Maeda threw three times as many innings than Graterol this season, and had a better ERA.
But it’s not likely the Dodgers have any misgivings about the trade, either, not when Graterol pitches like he did on Friday, in the eighth inning of Los Angeles’ 6-2 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 3.
Graterol, who had already appeared in six games this postseason, jogged in from the Globe Life Field bullpen for the eighth inning, ready to face the bottom three hitters in the Rays’ lineup. It didn’t take long — Graterol retired the side on seven pitches, getting a pair of routine ground balls from shortstop Willy Adames and pinch-hitter Yoshi Tsutsugo, with a fllyout from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier in between.
Those pitches? Fastballs. Fast fastballs. Six of his seven pitches were clocked above 100 mph, starting with a 100.7-mph sinker to Adames, and topping out at 102.0 mph on the first pitch to Tsutsugo. The only exception was the pitch that Kiermaier hit, a 90-mph “off-speed” slider.
“I don’t know what hitters are supposed to do with that,” admired Austin Barnes, Graterol’s catcher.
The speed is nothing new, of course, though it was to the Twins. Graterol, who appeared in 10 games for Minnesota last September after six dominating seasons as a starting pitcher in the Twins’ system, broke a decade-long drought between 100-mph pitches for the major-league team. Since StatCast technology was installed in MLB parks in 2008, only journeyman reliever Juan Morillo had eclipsed 100, with three fastballs in 2009, for the Twins until Graterol arrived.
Now there have been 16 such pitches by a Twin, 12 by Graterol last September — including the fastest pitch ever recorded by a Twin, a 101.9-mph fastball that Cleveland outfielder Greg Allen fouled off last Sept. 14 — and one on Sept. 2, 2020, by Jorge Alcala, a natural successor to Graterol in the Twins’ bullpen.
For all his velocity, Graterol hasn’t become the strikeout artist the Dodgers envisioned; many of his outings have been like Friday’s, effective for producing weak contact, but not swing-and-misses.
Not that he minds. “I feel very great, very comfortable,” Graterol said. “If I get three outs, I’m good. Ground ball, fly ball, something like that, or a strikeout? I feel great.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts theorized earlier this season that the sinking action Graterol produces with his fastball is part of the reason, that Graterol doesn’t throw to the top of the strike zone, where hitters more frequently swing and miss, because of it.
“It’s a sinker, it’s not a four-seamer at the top of the zone. Guys want to end that at-bat sooner than later, for fear of the velocity,” Roberts said. “When you put him in that sinker ball category, that right there is going to eliminate strikeouts.”
Efficiency has its appeal, too. Graterol didn’t record a strikeout Friday, but the inning was over in less than five minutes.
Graterol, who signed with the Twins for a $150,000 bonus three days after his 16th birthday in 2014, was much the same during the regular season: His strikeout rate was nearly cut in half, from more than a strikeout per inning with the Twins, to just 13 whiffs in 23 1/3 innings in the Dodgers’ bullpen, the lowest strikeout rate on the Dodgers’ staff.
He walked only three batters, though, and allowed just 18 hits, giving him a minuscule 0.900 WHIP. Those numbers are why Graterol is considered a likely successor, someday, to longtime Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who relieved Graterol for the ninth.
Until that day comes, though, Graterol said he’s more than happy serving as Jansen’s apprentice. And why not? It may pay off with a World Series ring next week.