Danny Graves is back where he belongs, and the Reds are where no one figured they would belong when the season began. They are winning for a variety of reasons, all of them compelling, but none greater than the huge effect Graves has had at the end of games.
He is on a pace for 73 saves, an absurdly high total that would demolish Bobby Thipgen's major league record of 57 set in 1990. Graves saved 17 of the Reds' first 20 wins, the most by any reliever through his team's first 20 games since the save rule became official in 1969. He recorded his 20th save in fewer team games -- 42 -- than any closer since 1969, breaking Lee Smith's record. Through Tuesday, he had 26 saves, five more than any Red had last year. Last season, the Reds didn't win their 26th game until May 30.
Last year, Graves was a starting pitcher, which he calls "an experiment that didn't work.'' The Reds were dramatically short of starting pitching, so they took arguably their best pitcher, second in franchise history in career saves, put him in the rotation and made Scott Williamson the closer. It was a risk worth taking, Williamson was dependable, the rotation wasn't. And, as it turned out, neither was Graves. He went 4-15 -- only the Pirates' Jeff D'Amico lost more games in the National League -- with a 5.33 ERA. The league hit .298 off him. After Williamson was dealt to the Red Sox before the trading deadline, Graves was returned to the bullpen to be the closer. By then, his season was lost.
Graves said he never really enjoyed starting, which he had never really done in his professional career, or at the University of Miami. And being a sinkerball pitcher, his stuff is better suited to closing. "The sinker is better when you're a little tired,'' Graves said.
Through Tuesday, Graves had thrown 33 innings, a pace for nearly 100 innings this year, which simply isn't done by closers these days. He has appeared in 33 games, one off the National League lead. He has been so busy because the Reds have played so many close games: 17 or their games have been decided by one run, 14 by two and 12 by three. The Reds rarely win easily, which partly explains how they can be leading the NL Central despite being outscored (283-272) this season. With 43 of their 58 games having been decided by three or fewer runs, that has meant a lot of save chances for Graves.
He hasn't been perfect by any means. He has blown five saves, most in the National League. He has allowed nine home runs, most of any closer in the league. But he has thrown strikes. In 33 innings, he has walked four, three of them intentionally. He enters a game, works fast, attacks hitters and, other than a few glitches, usually ends the game quickly.
"I've seen him about 10 times this year and I love the way he goes after guys,'' said one NL scout. "His stuff is very good, but he pitches like he's unhittable. That's good. He has an air about him that suggests the game is over when he walks on the mound. Sometimes it isn't, but that presence, and that confidence, is half the battle with being a closer.''
Graves' success does not come as a surprise. With his 18th save this season, he became the Reds' all-time save leader, passing John Franco. From 1999-2002, Graves saved 27, 30, 32 and 32 games. In those four years, he averaged 95 innings per year, which is an exceptional amount of work for a closer in today's game. The only difference between Graves in 2002 and Graves this year is that the Reds are contending, and everyone is watching. All of baseball knows what the Reds have known for years: in the end, depend on Danny Graves.