Arizona Senior Fall Classic: Graffanino’s Upward Trajectory

See Also: Arizona Senior Fall Classic: Arms Notebook

See Also: Kahaloa Stands Out

See Also: Breakout For Tyler Williams

PEORIA, ARIZ.—The Arizona Senior Fall Classic provides players the opportunity to finish their fall on a high note after the long summer and enter the offseason with momentum, which is what shortstop AJ Graffanino has done after showing well in Peoria.

Graffanino (Northwest Christian High, Phoenix) has some similarities to another athletic switch-hitting Arizona prep shortstop with a lean build, contact-oriented bat who was new to switch-hitting and has tremendous passion for the game: the Pirates’ Cole Tucker. Graffanino and Tucker are both very young for their draft classes (17 on draft day) and showed better in the fall than they did during the summer.

“He is really starting to believe in his ability and what he can do on a baseball field and I think the talent is there,” said Tony Graffanino, a 13-year major league veteran and coach of the D’Backs Elite Scout Team on which AJ plays. “I have heard the comparisons with Cole Tucker and I think Cole was the same way at this stage. He was good when you watched him play. Then he made Team USA and then came back and played in this event last year and I thought ‘Wow.’ He had gotten so much better and I think that has happened with him (AJ) over the course of the summer as well. But he still needs to grow some more, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. But I think his future is bright.”

Graffanino played well defensively and has a chance to remain at shortstop. Scouts said his loose, fluid and athletic actions and quickness are superior to Tucker at the same stage, while Tucker’s pure arm strength was better. He showed the ability to make plays on the run and throw from angles with a loose arm that is at least average. His defense has improved considerably over the last few years.

“I used to not be good at defense at all,” AJ Graffanino said. “Then I just pushed myself and spent a lot of time working on my defense. I just took off and prided myself on getting better defensively. I learned how to stay low on my feet. I just go with what my natural instincts tell me to do.”

Graffanino boasts defensive bloodlines, as his father was an above-average, sure-handed defender by both traditional metrics (.981 career fielding percentage) and advanced metrics (33.7 by Fielding Runs Above Average and 50.4 by UZR).

“(Defense) is where he has most confidence right now,” Tony Graffanino said. “He has really developed a ton over the last two years defensively where he can make all the plays at shortstop—the backhand, up the middle, he charges balls well and is good on the double play. To me that is his strong suit and hopefully as his hitting begins to develop he will be a well-rounded player.”

The 6-foot-2, 165-pound Graffanino has a very lean, lanky, angular and projectable build. He has a high, trim waist and long legs with lots of room to gain strength.

Graffanino, a natural lefthanded-hitter, began switch-hitting at the beginning of the summer. After striking out six times in 15 plate appearances while hitting .143/.200/.143 after the Area Code Games, Graffanino made lots of contact in Peoria. He has a loose lefthanded stroke with some sweepiness that stays inside the ball with a line-drive oriented bat path. His slashing approach is oriented up the middle and to the opposite field.

“I think that is where the strength will really come into play,” Tony Graffanino said. “Once he continues to get stronger, his bat speed will pick up a little bit more and a (have) more direct path to the ball. He had some loud contact this tournament. Maybe not always hits, but loud contact. The bat is coming. He didn't get to hit righthanded in this tournament but that is coming along pretty well for him. He has work to do. He has a couple of months now where he is going to be able to lift and run and hit a bunch. So hopefully (he’ll) develop in those areas.”

“I can overthink when I am hitting,” AJ Graffanino said. “But now I am starting to figure it out and let my ability take over. I am going to work hard on my hitting to show everyone I can rake because I really can.”

The Washington commit will not play basketball this winter in order to focus on baseball workouts. The athletic Graffanino shows leaping ability and can dunk. He is quicker than faster and runs well underway with his long strides. He ran a 4.25 on a groundout after consistently running from 4.35-4.40 at the Area Code Games.

“My speed has (gone) up and I ran a bad 60 at the National,” AJ Graffanino said. “It was bad. I can improve more with my speed and my arm strength can get better.”

Like Tucker, Graffanino is a high-energy player with makeup that scouts applaud and a strong desire to improve.

“Every day you have to go out there and play hard,” AJ Graffanino said. “I didn't believe in myself fully (at the beginning of the summer). I am beginning to and it is starting to take over. I can’t wait to see where I am going to be at (next spring) because I am going to take off after being overlooked and doubted. It just motivates me. I am never going to be satisfied with anything I do. I am going to keep working hard to get to the place where I want to be at, which is the big leagues.”

In addition to the similarities between Tucker and Graffanino, the two are close friends.

“(Tucker) was like my mentor and older brother,” Graffanino said. “He helped me a ton. He was the same way, overlooked, and he said to keep being myself and that has helped me not worry about what other people are thinking and just continuing to be who I am.”

• Righthander Ian Kahaloa (Campbell High, Ewa Beach, Hawaii) returned after his one-inning appearance for a three-inning stint and continued to show arm strength.

His fastball sat 89-93 throughout his outing (90-91 in the third), touching 94 from a quick arm. The ball jumped out of his hand with riding life to his four-seamer.

The uncommitted Kahaloa occasionally cut his fastball at 88-89. His two-seamer in the mid-80s had sinking life to his arm side. Kahaloa’s slider was his top secondary offering and it was below-average to fringe-average but flashed above-average at its best, according to scouts.

His secondary stuff is still developing because of his wandering arm slot and reduced arm speed for his breaking balls. He also mixed in a curveball and changeup.