AJ Graffanino is on an absolute tear for the Rome Braves. With 13 hits in his last five games, his average is now at .405 now 20 games into his full-season debut in the South Atlantic League.
It’s time to put Graffanino on the radar.
Graffanino is the 21-year-old shortstop prospect selected out of Washington in the eighth round of the 2018 MLB Draft. His father, Tony, was drafted in the tenth round nearly 30 years earlier in the 1990 MLB Draft by the Braves. The two have plenty of similarities.
“It was a discouraging couple of days from what I was expecting, but I get it with the injury and all,” Graffanino told me. “But I’m thankful for the Braves for believing in me. I told [Director of Scouting] Brian Bridges, ‘you’re not going to regret this’.
“It was cool, my dad was drafted in the tenth round and had to grind his way up to the big leagues. We looked at each other and I knew I had to do the same thing. It was a special moment between us.”
His final season in Washington was a magical one on plenty levels. It started with a hamstring injury that shelved Graffanino for nearly two months. But then the wins started piling up. Teammate Joe DeMers threw a perfect game, the team record book was being rewritten on a daily basis, and the three-seeded Huskies found themselves in Omaha for the first time in program history.
“It definitely wasn’t the most talented team, probably the least talented out of the three years I was there. But we had the best team chemistry and the most fight. We we’re playing for each other and having fun, and I think that brought out the best in each one of us.”
All the while, Graffanino got better and better. He bulked up in his junior season, adding some more weight and muscle, and most reports confirm that, although still listed as a switch hitter, his focus became on his strength of hitting lefty. Having never hit above .269 in his previous two seasons, Graffanino hit .364 in his collegiate swan song, a big reason Washington rose to the heights it did.
“The injury was tough, I missed 30-something games. It was discouraging, but at the same time I got to take a step back and learn. Just work on my mental side of the game and I came back with a lot more confidence. I was ready to go, playing with a hot team at the time. I missed the game so much I just wanted to get back and have fun.”
Think a much more talented Luke Dykstra. Graffanino is a singles machine, but can find the gaps with line drive abilities. He’s listed at 6’2”, 170 pounds and is a lot of leg, looking taller and lanky at the plate. There isn’t much noise to his swing prepitch, as he steps in, knees slightly bent, a little bounce with his arms up and out head high. There’s barely even a leg kick, with it much more of a stride as he swivels into the pitch.
Graffanino isn’t fast but he moves well both on the bases and defensively. He’s already stolen four bases in six opportunities, but that may be feasting on younger catching. While he should be able to steal five to eight bases a season, he looks sharp up the middle. He has good range, and made some nice snares with his glove to both sides, not looking like he had any issues making throws.
But don’t tell Graffanino, who seems humble in his approach to everything.
“I need to continue with my swing and approach, become more consistent. My arm needs to get stronger, and I want to get better with my glove. I guess pretty much everything,” Graffanino said laughing on what he needs to work on for the rest of 2018.
The big thing to watch will be the development of his power. He already has done something he didn’t do once in college or in his brief stint at Danville, and hit his first home run with Rome in Augusta back on July 17. He is ground ball (43.3%) and line drive (28.3%) heavy and didn’t seem to get a lot of loft under the ball. If Graffanino wants to become an every day player, he’ll need to figure out some more pop, but he also has an awareness that this is necessary, something that is huge in a young, developing player.
Graffanino had a big game Monday night. He went 4-for-5 all from the left side of the plate. The first three hits were singles before lining a double the other way to the left-center gap to start what eventually became the game-winning rally.
While Graffanino has yet to really slump as a pro, his past five games have been out of this world. He’s 13-for-22 (.590 average), but again, those are mostly singles with just four doubles sprinkled in. The positive is that Graffanino has never been prone to striking out in large amounts (just three times over this small sample size), but he also has never been a guy to take many walks. That’s likely because he’s been zoned in pretty much since the college season, hitting .383 between Washington, Danville and now Rome.
“I’m actually at the point now where I’m just trusting my swing. I’m ready for a fastball, and I’m just trying to stay inside it. But I’m not panicking when I see off speed. I’m not afraid to get beat and I’m relaxed more. I trust it and it’s helping me see pitches better and I hit them all over the field, which is big.”
What’s not to like here? So far, so good for Graffanino, although one viewing is not enough to put a stamp on his major league future.
Right now, if this hit tool is for real and sticks as he climbs the ladder, he has enough skills defensively and at the plate to be a useful utility player at the next level. If he can develop that power, it will help his chances in the playing time department.
Graffanino absolutely crushes right handers from the left-hand side. He’s hitting .457 with all five of his doubles and that lone home run. He’s solid against lefties as a left-hander as well, hitting them at a .367 lick. It’s as a righty where he really struggles hitting .167, albeit in just 12 at bats this season. His ability to hit both pitchers from the left-hand side is a big plus, but his dominance of righties doesn’t rule out a platoon player one day as well.
There is a lot of development left in Graffanino. If he bulked up heading into his age-21 season, there’s reason to believe in his first pro training off-season, he could do the same entering 2019. There’s not a lot to be discouraged with in his swing mechanics as he seems to repeat his smooth, quick left-handed swing through the strike zone, and as he says himself, he’s picking up the breaking pitches for now. There’s a lot to like in what he’s shown thus far and is showing some real value for being an eighth-round pick with maybe just a little chip on his shoulder to show everyone where he truly belongs.