By Rob Rains
For five days a week, starting almost as soon as his 2021 season ended and lasting until this year’s spring training began, Gordon Graceffo got in his car and made the 30-minute drive from his home in New Jersey to the Annex Sports Performance training facility.
A fifth-round draft pick by the Cardinals out of Villanova last July, Graceffo made the commitment to follow a diligent training schedule with the hopes that putting in that work would prove to be beneficial during the first full season of his professional career.
The short drive was part of a longer journey Graceffo wants to make – his climb through the Cardinals’ farm system toward his ultimate destination, the major leagues.
Nearing the one-year anniversary of being selected by the Cardinals as the 151st overall pick in last year’s amateur draft, Graceffo has quickly reached Double A Springfield, where the righthanded pitcher is “opening people’s eyes” in the opinion of his manager, Jose Leger.
“He’s got good stuff, that’s the bottom line,” Leger said. “But there’s more to it than having good stuff. It’s what you do with what you have. He’s got good stuff and he’s doing a lot with it.”
Part of the reason for his success, Graceffo believes, is the work he put in last winter training with Damien Akins, a coach at Annex and a former college pitcher himself, at Maryland.
In his most recent start on Thursday night at Arkansas had a no-decision, allowing four runs in 5 1/3 innings. In his first eight starts at the Double A level, Graceffo is 4-1 with a 3.50 ERA. He has struck out 36 batters, walked only nine, and held opposing hitters to a .223 average.
Graceffo was promoted to Springfield on May 24 after ripping through the high Class A Midwest League, where in eight starts for the Peoria Chiefs, he posted a 0.99 ERA over 45 innings, issuing only four walks while recording 56 strikeouts.
He was promoted on the same day as Michael McGreevy, the Cardinals’ first-round pick in last year’s draft.
“Every time you look at him you say, ‘How did he not go in the first round as well?’” McGreevy said. “It’s super fun to watch him go about his business. His work ethic is incredible, something you have to respect. I’m really glad he’s on my team.”
If Graceffo had a crystal ball available on the day he was drafted last year, July 12, where would he have predicted he would be a year into the future?
“Probably not here,” said the 22-year-old Graceffo, standing outside the Cardinals’ locker room. “If somebody had told me back then that I would be here right now, I probably would have told them they were crazy. It couldn’t have worked out much better.”
It’s no surprise to those who know Graceffo best – to his coach at Villanova, Kevin Mulvey; to Akins, his trainer; and to the two scouts primarily responsible for him ending up with the Cardinals, Jim Negrych and Sean Moran.
“Capable of great things”
The day Mulvey remembers thinking that Graceffo had the potential for a bright future in baseball was Feb. 15, 2020.
Graceffo started for Villanova that day against Arizona State, at the time the third-ranked team in the country. In the lineup for the Sun Devils were four players who, five months later, would be among the top 102 selections in the 2020 amateur draft.
Graceffo allowed just two hits and one run over 5 1/3 innings in a game Villanova won 2-1.
“That’s when I was like, ‘OK, if he can do this against this lineup, there’s no doubt in my mind he’s got it,’” Mulvey said.
Mulvey pitched in 10 major-league games for the Twins and Diamondbacks before his career led to the coaching side. He and Graceffo had multiple conversations about what professional baseball was like.
“I told him early on, ‘Listen Gordon, I’m not trying to prep you to make it to the major leagues. I know you can do that,’” Mulvey said. “’What I want to prep you for is to stay in the major leagues. That’s your goal. As long as you stay healthy and stay consistent with your work ethic and improving as you can, I promise you that you will get there.’
“’You have the skill set and all the tools. It’s just a matter of staying there. That’s a whole another level of commitment and dedication on a daily basis. Most of it is going to be between your ears.”
Mulvey found Graceffo a willing student, ready to listen and do what he needed to do to make himself a better pitcher.
“I wish you could have seen him grow at Villanova,” Mulvey said. “He was just a joy to deal with in every way … every time he pitched you could just sit back and relax and watch and enjoy the Picasso he was painting for you. I can’t say enough about this kid.
“Gordon is capable of great things. He’s a very hard worker, very diligent in his craft. He is a student of the game. He loves the game of baseball. He eats, sleeps, drinks and breathes it. His aptitude for getting better and improving is way up there. His learning curve is pretty steep … it was just a matter of steering him in the right direction.
“He’s always working trying to get better. He’s not going to be satisfied or relax. He’s going to keep pushing to make himself the best he can be.”
“The perfect scenario”
As pick after pick rolled by and the fourth round turned into the fifth during last year’s draft, Negrych, the area scout for the Cardinals who had watched Graceffo the most, was on edge.
“I was a little nervous that he would make it to our pick in the fifth,” Negrych said. “Thankfully he was still there.”
Negrych had watched Graceffo several times during the season, and when the college year ended, Graceffo made three starts in the Cape Cod League, where the Cardinals had another scout watching.
“Aaron Krawiec, our West Coast crosschecker, saw him up there and loved him the same way Jimmy did,” said Moran, the Cardinals Northeast crosschecker. “He didn’t walk anyone, the stuff was good, so he kind of checked that analytics box too.
“Good scouting? For sure. Good teamwork? Absolutely. It was a tough environment to scout in with all the cancellations and quarantines to deal with but Jimmy did such a good job of staying on him, of always believing in the upside.
“It’s kind of how you’d draw it up if you wanted the perfect scenario. There were scouts that loved him and the analytics loved him.”
“Like to throw harder”
Graceffo began his pro career with Palm Beach, the Cardinals’ low Class A affiliate. Coming off a long college season, he made only one start and 10 relief appearances last summer, spanning a total of 26 innings. He walked nine, struck out 37 and posted a 1.73 ERA.
It was an encouraging start, but Graceffo was convinced that he could get better.
“I wanted to add some good weight, get more athletic, faster, and become more agile,” Graceffo said. “I had it in my head I could do that.”
When he got back to New Jersey, Graceffo called Akins, who had worked at Annex since 2015 and had previously worked with some of Graceffo’s former high school teammates.
For the first time in his life, Graceffo was free to spend his winter working out and concentrating on baseball activities.
“It let him focus on his craft,” Akins said. “He didn’t have to worry about tests. He had less stress. He was getting sleep. There was nothing pulling him in a different direction.”
Akins came up with a plan, and quickly saw how dedicated Graceffo was to doing the work. He added about 15 pounds and found himself getting the extra tick up in velocity, from the mid 90s to the high 90s, that he desired.
“He knows he’s gifted,” Akins said. “He knows he can through a baseball really hard, but I think it was some of the nuances that come with training. He’s definitely a guy who likes to understand the why. ‘Why are we doing certain things?’ Once he understood that, he fully bought in.
“In terms of just a one off-season transformation, he’s probably one of the craziest ones I’ve seen. A lot of that comes down to the plan, him buying into the plan and executing the plan.”
Gracefello told Akins that one of his goals was to throw a pitch 100 miles per hour, about three miles per hour faster than where he had been topping out.
“He said, ‘I would like to throw harder; but I don’t know if that’s possible,’” Akins said. “I told him everything we were doing might make that possible.”
Graceffo hit 100 on the radar gun at spring training. He called Akins to tell him.
“I was surprised he did it that soon, but I wasn’t surprised that he did it,” Akins said. “All the signs were kind of pointing that way from a training standpoint.”
Having to throw close to 100 pitches in a game has forced Graceffo to dial back on the velocity a little bit since the regular season began, but the results have still been what Graceffo had hoped for – and what Akins expected.
“There’s nothing really more gratifying as coaches,” Akins said. “We see all the behind the scenes work, the work they are doing in the dark. To then go out when the lights are on and do what they do, and perform at the level they want to perform at, there’s nothing more gratifying. I know what went into that. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”
“A strike thrower”
McGreevy, who pitched at California-Santa Barbara, didn’t know much about Graceffo when they met after the draft and became teammates. He knows a lot more about him now. Since arriving together in Springfield, they abd two other teammates are living together in an apartment.
The two generally start on consecutive nights. When the game is over, they go back home and talk about the game, comparing notes.
Even though they are both righthanded pitchers, they don’t have the same arsenal or pitch the same way. Still, they are learning from each other.
“We definitely have different approaches to the game,” Graceffo said, “but we can both take things from each other. What worked and what can we improve on? It’s nice to talk to each other about it.
“This league is tough to pitch in. The competition is really good. You just have to take it one start at a time and try to improve every single time.”
After each start, Graceffo said he reviews all of the analytical data and compares those numbers to what he was thinking was happening as the game played out in real time.
“You kind of have it in your head when you come out of the game what you did well and what you can improve on,” he said. “You talk through that with the coaches and pick things that you want to do better in your next start.”
Added McGreevy, “Gordon is a strike thrower. He manages the zone extremely well, kind of like me, but our fastballs are different, our changeups are different, our sliders are different. He’s a guy who has a lot of swing and miss stuff. I kind of pitch more to contact and let the defense work.”
Leger believes the challenge of pitching in the hitter-friendly Texas League, especially with half of their games in Springfield, is a good challenge for both Graceffo and McGreevy.
“This league is 100 percent tougher on pitchers than hitters, especially this park,” Leger said. “In some of these parks the ball just flies.”
Graceffo knows the area of his game that he really wants to develop — consistency.
“With the stuff he’s got, it’s just a matter of time,” Leger said. “Check the boxes and you move up. That’s the next step for him.”
Graceffo tries to keep his attention focused on his next start. If he had the crystal ball now, and gazed into the future, it’s not hard to imagine himself standing on a major-league mound.
After all, he’s already been there. Last spring, Villanova played a game against Georgetown at Citizens Bank Park on May 7 in Philadelphia. Graceffo made the start and pitched 7 2/3 innings, allowing one earned run while walking one and striking out 10. Villanova won 4-2.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “The stadium was a lot bigger than what I was used to. It wasn’t packed, but being there in full capacity would be insane. I can’t Imagine what Busch is like.”
He likely will be finding the answer to that question in the not too distant future.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Graceffo said. “This is the dream. Once I started playing baseball, it was my dream.”
Photos by P.J. Maigi courtesy of Springfield Cardinals and workout photo courtesy of Damien Akins
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains