DUNEDIN, Fla. - Josh DeGraaf's first outing in Double-A didn't go as planned. In an inning and two-thirds of relief, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies knocked five hits and scored three runs against DeGraaf. He left the game with an unsightly 16.20 ERA and 3.60 WHIP at the Double-A level, but also with a new attitude on the mound that would help him emerge as one of the top starting pitchers on Dunedin's staff.
"I was giving the hitters too much credit and trying to be too perfect. I learned that after I had a tough first outing in Double-A," DeGraaf said about his first appearance with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats following his promotion from Dunedin on May 7th. "After that, I just decided that I wouldn't know how good I am until I threw in the zone so guys could hit it. I learned rather than get behind in counts, to get ahead and pound the zone. If they hit it, they hit it. At least they earned it."
From then on, DeGraaf stopped trying to be too fine with his pitches and to instead go right after batters, attacking them with strikes in the zone.
"It's hard to hit, I know that, so I can only make it easier on them getting in leverage counts. 1-0, 2-1, 3-1. It's a lot easier to hit a fastball in those counts. I'm just trying to pound the zone, get ahead, and force them to beat me by hitting."
With his new philosophy in hand, DeGraaf was stellar for the rest of his time in New Hampshire, posting a 1.93 ERA over his next eight appearances. He returned to Dunedin at the beginning of June to be given the opportunity to develop as a starting pitcher.
While it was bittersweet to return to Advanced-A after having success at the Double-A level, the move allowed DeGraaf to move into Dunedin's starting rotation, where he has thrived. In 21.2 innings since returning to Dunedin, DeGraaf has a 2-0 record and 2.49 ERA. After having an undefined swingman role for New Hampshire, DeGraaf is pleased to have a set routine as a starter.
"I like throwing multiple innings, whether that's starting or long relief. Getting through an order twice is something I really enjoy. As long as I know my role and have a routine, I love whatever role I have."
Attacking the strike zone and getting ahead in the count has been a focus for DeGraaf and a large part of his success. In 35.1 innings for Dunedin this season, he has only walked four batters.
"[Pitching Coach Mark] Riggins and I have worked a lot on trusting my stuff and that's part of the mental process the Blue Jays have set up. I go out there every day thinking that my stuff is good enough to get guys out and I'm going to force them to beat me and hit their way to a win rather then a couple walks and a knock."
While DeGraaf has been stellar on the field for Dunedin, his work off the field has been just as impressive. No player on the Blue Jays team has logged as many community service hours as DeGraaf, who made visits to seven local schools to read to and encourage students during Dunedin's Bookin' It To The Ballpark Reading Program.
"I didn't get to do a ton of [community work] last year and there were a lot of opportunities here early in the year. They may have been early mornings, but I enjoy working with kids."
As a psychology major in college, DeGraaf had the opportunity to work with kids frequently, something he was glad to get the chance to do again this season.
"I loved the kids' questions. They always had really funny questions and sometimes very surprisingly good questions about baseball, about reading, and about life. It was fun hearing those and laughing with them."
Questions from the second grade students he visited ranged from silly (Are you a good dancer?) to profound (Why do pets die?), but the majority of questions focused on the Blue Jays mascot DJay, who went along with DeGraaf to every school visit. Students asked about the mascot's diet, his shoes, his hobbies, and if DJay lives up his name as an actual disc jockey.
After answering questions for the bird repeatedly at school visits, DeGraaf decided to try his hand at being a mascot before a recent game as part of a video promoting the Blue Jays' upcoming Mascot Night at the ballpark on Saturday, July 8th.
"I've been wanting to be a mascot since I was a kid," Degraaf joked before donning a replica DJay suit. "I thought getting into baseball would be a great avenue to get into being a mascot."
After a day of intensive mascot training, DeGraaf had changed his mind.
"I learned that being a mascot is hard. I don't think I have what it takes to make the cut."
Given how he has pitched this season, Blue Jays fans should be glad DeGraaf's mascot aspirations didn't work out.
Story by Daniel Venn of the Dunedin Blue Jays