Graham Spraker was promoted to Vancouver for the Northwest League final.
This episode of C’s Chat features the second player from the Quincy Hawks to wear the Vancouver Canadians uniform in 2017, righthanded pitcher Graham Spraker. The Quincy Hawks reunion between Spraker and first baseman David Jacob did not materialize after Jacob was called up to the Lansing Lugnuts in mid-August while Spraker was promoted to Vancouver just after the Appalachian League playoffs. By the time the 6-foot-3 hurler from Tucson, Arizona was summoned from the Bluefield Blue Jays, the 22 year-old Spraker was well-versed with post-season baseball after some memorable runs with Quincy during his three-year college career.
“That was probably the most fun I’ve ever had playing baseball my whole life. We were contenders in our regional in my sophomore and junior year. We hosted actually in my sophomore and junior year and we dropped the ball both times.
Coming back for my senior year, this was kind of my last shot to get to the (Division II) World Series. We ended up winning our conference tournament, which gave us our bid to go to our regional. We didn’t host the regional, we barely snuck in.
We played Northwood University all the way up in Michigan and we beat them twice on the championship day to take the title and that was awesome. I pitched the first game that day. I started a game two days before that and I got yanked kind of early but we came back and won that game anyway. I started the first game of the doubleheader, got a win and we had a freshman come in and pitch and he threw seven strong. His name was Riley Martin and we won the Midwest Region and that was awesome.”
On coach Josh Rabe’s influence on the Quincy Hawks.
“He’s made all the difference. He played at QU during his time in college and so with him coming back, you could almost say he’s kind of like the hometown hero. He’s a fantastic coach. He’s put together one hell of a program and he really believed that we could do it, especially going into that senior year. We were so close the two years before. It was just as tough on him obviously, us dropping those games in the regional. He has made the biggest impact on my career and I’m sure Dave (David Jacob) would say the same thing.”
On why he was successful on the mound during his senior season.
“I stopped stressing about pitching. My junior year, I kind of had a rough year and on the mound, I was kind of trying to force things to happen a little too much. I know that most pitching coaches would tell you that’s kind of a good thing but I don’t know, I just lost my edge in my junior year and so coming back for my senior year, I just kind of got my composure back on the mound. It was a mental change for me more than it was a physical change.”
On who has had the biggest influence on him as a pitcher.
“I’ve always been a pitcher. I’ve played a little bit of infield in high school…I wasn’t good at it but it was fun. (Pitching) was more fun than being a P-O (putout) that early in my career. I have been a student of Brent Strom’s for a really long time. Brent is the pitching coach with the Houston Astros right now but he was in Tucson during the off-season so I’ve been seeing him on and off since I was like maybe 12 years old. He’s kind of modelled my—not quite my mechanics—but my mental approach to pitching, that kind of thing so I’ve always had him to guide me and give me little pointers year by year.
My pitching coach at QU, Matt Stembridge, he would always do his best to give us the best resources and just as much knowledge as he could possibly could. He was a blessing to the QU program too.”
Graham Spraker was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 31st round of the 2017 draft.
On his approach to pitching.
“That really changed for me while I was with the Blue Jays and at the end of college. I picked up a lot of velocity after I made some mechanical changes right at the end of my college season. Once I started throwing a significant amount harder and I had to pitch in the bullpen, I didn’t have to worry about tapering my stamina to stay in the game.
Once I had that plus velocity, I could really challenge hitters. It opened up the top half of the strike zone for me. Before in college, I was basically trying to throw sinkers or sliders and staying low in the zone, trying to get poor contact but then once I got to the Blue Jays, I was able to challenge hitters with the fastball. It opened up the entire half of the strike zone to me. I was able to do so much more.”
On his fastball usage.
“I still throw two seams. I kind of got away from the four-seam fastball while I was at Quincy. That was Coach Stembridge right there. For some reason, my two-seam is just as hard as my four-seam fastball so in college, it was just more efficient for me to throw the two-seam because it had a little more movement on it so that we just kind of scrapped the four-seam but not that I can’t use it. I usually go to my two-seam because it’s my comfort pitch so I just started throwing my two-seam fastball up in the zone and that’s how I got most of the strikeouts with the Blue Jays, that in combination with my slider.”
On adding another pitch to his repertoire.
“I’m probably going to be focusing on the change right now. I had one in college, I didn’t really use it very often because I was so much more confident with my slider but I’ve been working with the pitching coaches during instructs and I have a totally new grip. I threw it all throughout September/October while we were in the instructional league and I’m already very proud of it.
I don’t think I’m going to try to throw a curveball any time soon. I’ve never had the talent or like the natural ability to create like a 12-to-6 spin so I think we’ll put that on the back burner for now until I start to get the feel for that. I’ve never thrown anything remotely close to a 12-6 so it’d be tough for me to pick it up right now. ”
On developing his changeup.
“I guess the one issue that I have with it right now is that it does come out still pretty firm. It’s got the downward movement that I want from it but that’s my tendency, which I’m aware of on the mound so I’d be able to identify it and fix it when I do mess up. My mistakes I would make with it would be throwing it too hard. Right now, normally it was like 87-88 miles an hour and if I’m starting to get tired during a game and my fastball velocity is coming down from mid-90s coming down to low-(90s), then that spread’s a little too small.”
On taking part in instructional league.
“Instructs was actually a lot of fun. It felt like summer camp and everybody was always packed in the conference room to start the day. It was a good time. The pitchers did a lot of PFP (pitcher’s fielding practice) drills as expected but I’ve learned a lot during instructs about everything pitching from pitch sequencing to mental toughness in general.”
Graham Spraker chats with Travis Bergen (#23) before Game 3 of the Northwest League final.
On getting drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays and who scouted him.
“I was so relieved. I remember watching almost every name get called on that third day and I knew that if I had any chance of going, it was going to be with the Blue Jays so every single time it was their turn to call a name, I was glued to the computer screen hoping waiting to see mine. I remember when they did call, my parents both jumped out of their seats screaming so it was a really fun experience, a huge relief!”
“Jeff Johnson was my scout. He was the Midwest area scout and Jeff actually just got a position as the coordinator of amateur scouting with the Tampa Bay Rays so he’s no longer with the Jays. Jeff was definitely the most enthusiastic just by the normal conversation with all the scouts I had spoken with.”
On his introduction to pro baseball with Bluefield.
“Bluefield was great. The coaching staff was fantastic. Dennis Holmberg was the man and (pitching) coach Tony, Antonio (Caceras) was the boss. He helped me out a lot. They kind of let us try to do our own thing for the first year there. I could tell that some of the second or third year players would get a lot more one-on-one instruction than the new kids would but I think that’s just because they told us they wanted us to try and acclimate to our first year of pro baseball. It’s kind of to get used to the little things like the change in lifestyle, that kind of stuff but (the coaches) did a hell of a job. They managed a hell of a team and they took just great care of us. I couldn’t be more grateful from everybody, from Roswell and our coaching staff, Caleb (Daniel) the trainer and (Aaron) Spano, our strength coach. They just did everything they could to make sure that we had all the tools that we needed.”
On pitching with Ty Tice in the Bluefield bullpen.
“Me and Ty, we were competing with each other to see who could rack up the most saves, although, I mean he kind of ran away with it at the end. Ty was always first up but when Ty couldn’t pitch, then it was my turn. We had a healthy competition going on all year long.”
On Bluefield winning the Mercer Cup against their arch-rival Princeton Rays.
“The Mercer Cup was pretty fun. We won it pretty early in the season. The County here, they take it pretty seriously. It was cool to be a part of it. When we finally won and got the trophy, that was a good time. Champagne showers. It was kind of weird though, we were shaking champagne in the middle of the season.”
On pitching in the post-season with Bluefield.
“I loved it. I came out. I got the save in the first game but I got to pitch at Pulaski (in third and deciding Game 3) and I remember when I came out of the bullpen, I can’t remember the score, it was pretty close but the crowd started chanting ‘Go Yankees!’ or something like that and I was just like (speechless).”
On the possibility of getting called up to Vancouver after the Appalachian League playoffs.
“I didn’t really think about it because (the C’s) had made call-ups like two weeks before that and I didn’t move so I kind of assumed I was just going to play the rest of the season (in Bluefield). And then (the Jays) gave me a plane ticket to go home and so I had all my stuff packed up and ready to leave and then about an hour before I was set to go on the bus and get to the airport, they called me and sent me a new itinerary and told me I was going up to Canada.”
On finally making it to Vancouver.
“I was pumped. That was my goal from the beginning of the season was to at least end up in Vancouver by the end but I was kind of bummed that—I wasn’t bummed that Dave (David Jacob) got promoted—but I was pissed that I was still one level behind him. (Laughs) I was really looking forward to playing on the same team with him again but we’ll get there. We’ll catch up.”
On other players he’s close with in the Blue Jays system.
“Pretty much all the pitchers. I was always pretty close with Ty (Tice) and Marcus Reyes. I can name off a ton of names. Connor Law was one of my buds. He started off in the GCL and then finally he came up to Bluefield and it was a riot when he got promoted but Connor, he played in the Division II World Series against us. We didn’t get a chance to play him but I didn’t meet him yet but I knew he was with Lindenwood which was like two hours away from Quincy but we’d always been in the same area. It was fun to finally meet him.”
On making his first playoff appearance during Game 1 of the Northwest League finals against the Eugene Emeralds.
“Eugene was fun. I came in kind of early. I think I was trying to do a little too much when I first got into that game. I let one of those runs score on a sacrifice fly and I was disappointed but in all hindsight, I did my job. And then they gave me one more inning after that and I was kind of on edge to be honest. It was the first game up there but once I struck out my first batter in that second inning, I calmed down a lot because I just did exactly what I would have done if I was pitching in Bluefield and it worked out in that same way so I kind of reassured in my mind that like it’s the same game and I shouldn’t be worried about it. These guys, they’re not that much better from where you were just at.”
On the difference between the college and Appalachian League playoffs to the Northwest League playoffs.
“It was the crowd. The huge difference in the amount of people who were there, especially in Vancouver. We had 5,000 people or something like that and pitching in front of that many people, the noise was a distraction I guess. Just from Bluefield, we played with maybe about 700 to 1,000 people. The atmosphere was just totally different.”
Graham Spraker pitched 2-2/3 scoreless innings for the C’s in the Northwest League final.
On pitching in Game 3 against Eugene in Vancouver.
“I remember our pitching coach Jim Czajkowski. I remember coming out of the game and he was asking me about a certain pitch sequence that I just did to one of the batters that I just struck out. I remembered how disappointed he was when I told him that I just hung a slider. It was a terrible pitch but (the batter) missed it anyway. (Laughs).
Pitching in Vancouver was so much fun. I had to drive out to the mound in that golf cart. I was having fun. That’s what I remember about that outing. I wasn’t stressed. I wasn’t thinking. I was just playing baseball and having a good time.”
On riding in the C’s bullpen car to the mound.
“I’ve never done that before. Yeah, it kind of puts you in a different mindset I think because if I was to run in from the bullpen, I’d probably be thinking about all sorts of stuff, trying to be as locked in as possible but driving out in a golf cart with a big ol’ Canadians helmet on it, I don’t know, it just made me smile.”
On getting credited with the victories in both of his playoff appearances with Vancouver.
“That was a blessing. That was kind of just a scorekeeper’s decision though because both times, I think if the starter would have gone one more inning just to get to the fifth, then they would have got both the wins. Still, I’m happy that I was the guy that got to sneak in there and grab those two.”
On watching the clinching Game 4 from the bullpen.
“Once we took the lead, the whole atmosphere in the bullpen changed. Everyone was on the edge of their seats leading up to that and then finally when we got ahead, we definitely didn’t relax but there were a lot more looks of hope and joy around the pen with the guys.”
On seeing Chavez Young’s catch and tumble over the wall in foul territory down the right field side for the second out of the ninth inning.
“Chavez is just a clutch player. That’s exactly what he is. Chavez had bailed me out multiple times while I was in Bluefield too so I always loved pitching with Chavez in the outfield but yeah, it was definitely our year. Chavez needed it too because Chavez, you could tell the way he was playing that he’d do everything possible to win and he did. He did more than that.”
On running from the bullpen to the infield to join the celebration of the final out.
“It was the fastest I’ve definitely ran in a long time. That gate was open before the umpire even called a strike I think. I wish I would have been in Vancouver longer but not that I didn’t appreciate all of it. It was a fantastic experience and I just remember being in the locker room when we were done. We had a champagne shower and then the team owner came in, he was ecstatic and he told us that he was going to get us the biggest ring possible. I could tell from looking around the locker room from the guys that had been here all season and had worked for it the whole year, they were just so excited. I’m just blessed. I just wish I could have the same feeling or known exactly what it would have been like if I was there the whole year.”
On his off-season preparation.
“I just got back from Tampa two or three days ago. I was at a high performance camp at our Spring Training complex in Dunedin so that’s set me up really well going into the rest of the off-season. I got to go through my program for two weeks with our training staff so I know exactly how to do everything, how I should be going about all my workouts and lifting and stuff and now I’m just going to spend some time through it. I got three months now to just do what I can to be ready for spring training.”
My thanks again to Graham Spraker for this episode of C’s Chat.