Josh DeGraaf started this season as a relief pitcher for the Dunedin Blue Jays, the Class A-Advanced affiliate of the Toronto organization.
After a trip to Double A New Hampshire in May, he returned to Dunedin in early June. This time, tough, the Morris Community High School graduate and 31st-round draft pick out of Taylor University was going to be used as a starter.
He responded to his new role quite well and was named Dunedin's Pitcher of the Month in July. During the month, he was 3-1 in six starts, amassing 37 innings with an ERA of 1.70. For the season, he is 6-2 with a 2.77 ERA in Dunedin, while he was 0-0 with a 3.55 ERA in New Hampshire.
"I went to Double A as a reliever," DeGraaf said. "It was a very good experience, but I was sent back to Class A to be a starter. They told me not to see it as a demotion. They wanted to stretch me out as a starter, and Class A was where they had an opening in the starting rotation."
DeGraaf made the most of his opportunity, as it allowed him to show the powers that be all the weapons in his arsenal.
"I don't mind whatever role they give me," he said. "But I do enjoy being able to go out there and pitch more than one inning. Starting pitchers have more of a routine than relievers. When you are a starter, you have a routine and you know what you are going to do when you get to the park. As a reliever, you don't know if you are going to pitch that day or not.
"Also, as a starter, I am able to use all my pitches. Most relievers have the power pitches – fastball and slider. My best off-speed pitch is a changeup, but as a reliever, I didn't use it much. I went to Australia over the winter and worked hard on my slider, so I was using that."
When he was in Double A, DeGraaf learned a lesson that has helped spur his success as a starter.
"I got knocked around pretty good in my first outing at Double A," he recalled. "I was pretty nervous and trying to be perfect. In my second outing, my catcher came out and told me that the hitters weren't as good as I was making them out to be. He told me that hitting is hard and I should just challenge them and trust my stuff.
"I just try to keep the ball down and let my defense work for me. One thing in Double A was that the pitchers didn't throw any harder than the ones in Class A, but, man, can they pitch. They throw really good breaking stuff, nothing is ever above the thigh unless it's on purpose, and they use both sides of the plate. I learned a lot being up there."
DeGraaf also credited his pitching coach, Mark Riggins, for his growth as a starter.
"Coach Riggins really knows his stuff," DeGraaf said. "He was the Cincinnati Reds' big-league pitching coach last year and he has been around for quite a while. He tells me to control what I can control and not worry about anything else."
For DeGraaf, that means focusing on his next start. The player movement that is part of life as a minor-leaguer, he takes as it comes.
"The promotions, demotions or players getting released are business decisions that the organization makes," he said. "We don't have any control over that, so I try not to worry about it. I don't have any control over whether or not I will be a starter next year. I know I am going to be for the rest of this year, so I am concentrating on that. If they tell me at the end of the year that they want me to relieve again next year, that's what I will do."
DeGraaf said that at the end of the season, the club will give the players a plan for the off-season. Then, a couple weeks later, they will call and make sure they are following that plan.
"In the long term, I am not sure what they will want me to do," he said. "It doesn't matter to me. I am adaptable, and I think that has helped me so far. I can't control what level they assign me to, either. I kind of have a goal to not repeat a level, but if they want me to, I will.
"Every year, I see guys that I know that are released, and I feel very grateful to be able to play professional baseball. I have been fortunate enough to not have a major injury and I get to keep playing baseball instead of going out into the work force. It's been a lot of fun so far and I want to keep doing it as long as I can."