COLUMBIA, Mo. • Three years ago, Brett Graves came to a crossroads, the first major decision in his promising baseball career: Pitch for your home-state university or pitch for your hometown professional team?
A 26th-round selection by the Cardinals in the 2011 amateur draft, the state championship-winning ace from Francis Howell had a scholarship waiting for him at Missouri, a college program known for developing major league arms. Mizzou had produced a first-round pitcher in 2006, 2008 and 2009 — all three of them, just like Graves, flame-throwing righthanders.
But these were the Cardinals. Busch Stadium. The birds on the bat. The Clydesdales on opening day. And they wanted Graves.
“We always worry,” Mizzou coach Tim Jamieson said, “about local kids getting drafted by the Cardinals.”
Jamieson and the Tigers have other worries these days as they try to navigate through the unforgiving Southeastern Conference. Just 4-8 in four SEC series and 14-16 overall, Mizzou can count on one mainstay this season. Graves has been one of the SEC’s best on the mound.
The final six weeks of the regular season could be the junior’s final audition for this summer’s draft.
“He’s got a chance if he finishes strong to be a really high draft pick,” said Jamieson, who counts among his former aces current major league pitchers Kyle Gibson (Twins), Aaron Crow (Royals) and Max Scherzer, Detroit’s reigning American League Cy Young winner. “He’s got the makeup and the stuff and the athleticism.”
For the season, Graves (3-2, 2.30 ERA) ranks seventh in the pitching-dominant SEC for innings (54 2/3) and strikeouts (45). Of the 47 hits he’s allowed in eight starts, 43 have been singles.
His biggest setback this year came last month at Ole Miss when an errant throw during pregame warmups struck him behind the ear, forcing him to miss that night’s start.
“I can tell you some pretty crazy stories about me getting hit in the head with baseballs,” said Graves, who has a scar over his left eyebrow from a foul ball that nailed him in eighth grade while he was stretching on a different field. “My mom jokes and calls me ‘Ball Magnet.’”
Graves has inflicted more damage on hitters this spring. He touched 97 mph on the radar gun earlier this season and has shown command of four pitches, including a curveball he sharpened last summer with the Newport, R.I., Gulls of the New England Collegiate Baseball League.
“My goal when I left (Columbia) last year was to really develop my curveball and make that more of an out pitch,” Graves said, “because I feel like I’m at my best when my curveball’s been really good.”
When the Cardinals drafted Graves in June 2011, Kyle McClellan was in his 10th season pitching for the organization, his fourth with the parent club. Nobody in professional baseball could understand Graves’ decision better.
“He was pretty much me 10 years (earlier),” McClellan said. “It was the exact same situation.”
The Cardinals drafted McClellan in the 25th round in 2002. A star pitcher at Hazelwood West, McClellan had a scholarship at Mizzou. Instead, he passed on college, made it to the majors in 2008 and pitched in 261 career games with the Cardinals, including a 12-win season as a starter in 2011, which ended with a World Series championship.
McClellan had never met Graves, but he knew one of his football coaches at Francis Howell, and told the Cardinals they should give the righthander a look for the 2011 draft. They did more than look, spending the 800th overall pick on the high school pitcher.
McClellan, on the disabled list with a hip injury at the time of the draft, looked up Graves and asked to have a chat with him and his parents about his looming decision.
“I told him,” McClellan said, “‘I don’t care what decision you make. There is no right or wrong. Everybody’s different, every situation is different. But I’ll give you the straight answers of what you’re in for, the stuff some people might not tell you.’”
McClellan told Graves about life in the minor leagues and described the grind of a typical day in pro baseball. He said Graves was still “starry-eyed” about playing for the Cardinals.
“It’s so hard when you’re 18 years old, and that’s why you can’t let your heart get involved,” McClellan said.
McClellan, now a free agent after a stint with the Rangers last year, said he doesn’t regret missing out on college but wanted to make sure another player in a similar position understood the stakes.
“Six-figure numbers for a signing bonus is really hard to turn down, but when you get into the real world you realize $100,000 isn’t life-changing money and isn’t going to set you up for the rest of your life,” McClellan said.
“It’s a great start, but you’re also giving up four years of a college education.”
Graves ultimately followed Scherzer’s path. The Cardinals drafted Scherzer out of Parkway Central in 2003, but after a standout career at Mizzou, he became a first-round pick three years later.
Velocity is Graves’ best asset on the mound, but he was in no rush to launch his professional career. Instead, he’s got a chance to be the next Mizzou ace to celebrate draft day.
“I want to be,” Graves said, “and I think if I’m not striving to be, then what am I striving for?”