Entering the 2023 season, Graham Pauley was a relative unknown as a 13th-round and 390th-overall pick in the 2022 draft out of Duke University.
However, In the latter stages of 2022, you could see the early makings of why he could be a fast riser in the Padres system. While it was just 17 games in Single-A Lake Elsinore, the 21-year-old posted a .958 OPS, 16.7% BB Rate, and a 154 wRC+.
If 2022 was the sneak peak, the 2023 season was the breakout performance for Pauley.
The kid from Alpharetta, Georgia, would turn from an unknown into the 2023 Padres minor leaguer of the year and, earning him the rank of one of the top San Diego Padres prospects thanks to a torrent offensive campaign.
“Confidence is a big part of any sport, but especially baseball. You want to be confident at the dish and in the field, and going into last season, I did not have the confidence that I have going into this. I really feel like I belong.” said Graham Pauley, the current No.9 overall Padres prospect per Baseball America. “I think that I can make a big jump this year, even more so than I did last season.”
In Pauley’s 2023 campaign, it’s hard to find a glaring flaw or shortcoming. Across all minor league levels, Pauley was one of only four prospects this season to post a 15+(HR)/15+(SB) season with a 10+% BB Rate.
Even if you expand the criteria a bit to a minimum of 200 at-bats, Pauley is still only one of seven players with an OPS north of .850, a K Rate less than 20%, and at least 15 or more home runs. Two of the only other six names that could lay the same claim with him would be Junior Caminero and Brennan Milone. The No.3 & No.10 overall prospects in baseball, according to Baseball America. With stats like them, Pauley quickly became a candidate for promotion at every level.
The rapid promotion of prospects, including Pauley, was a talking point among some Padres fans this last season. Some worried that the rapid progression of prospects could be possibly harmful to their development. But that was not the case for Pauley.
“I think as you progress, no matter who you are, you are always going to have some small doubts. Like, do you belong? Is this level going to be too much for me, or am I moving too quickly? But once you get promoted to a new level, everything you’ve done doesn’t go out the window, but you have to adapt and learn.” Pauley explained to EVT.
“I would say once I got into High A and continued playing well, a lot of stuff clicked for me, especially at the dish. I felt I figured out my swing, what my strong suit was, and had full trust in what I was doing and my approach. That allowed me to continue my success as the season went on.”
Pauley’s strides and progression were most notable this past season in his power and slugging numbers. A player who has always had excellent contact skills and plate discipline, Pauley made a conscious effort at the start of the 2023 season to lift the ball in the air more to play with more power.
While still making solid contact, he noticed that he was putting the ball on the ground too often and not getting the results he wanted. In an effort to change that, Pauley made two critical adjustments: Working on his direction and slotting with his bat path.
“I really focused on staying in the middle of the field. Being a righty thrower and a lefty hitter, even though I was making solid contact and hitting the ball hard, a lot of it was rolling over and pulling my front side away because I’m cross-dominant,” Pauley commented.
“Slotting for me is just about getting to the right spot as quickly as possible and allowing my rotation and play to my benefit. I allow my bat to stay in the zone as long as possible and elevate the ball more.”
The slight swing change would provide immediate results, as in 2023, he would slash .308/.393/.539 and post a 152 wRC+ between Single-A, High Single-A, and Double-A. Pauley would indeed see an increase in his flyball percentage, as he would post a FB% of 37.6% in Lake Elsinore, 46.5% in Fort Wayne, and 39.1% in San Antonio.
He also saw a noticeable jump in his HR/FB% (home run-to-fly ball ratio), which vaulted from just 5.7% in Lake Elsinore to 26.7% in A+ Fort Wayne and 11.1% in San Antonio.
Approach at the Plate
If you didn’t know the numbers, it would be fair to assume that while Pauley’s power numbers rose, he may have been sacrificing some plate discipline and seen an increase in strikeout numbers.
But that was not the case, as he posted a BB rate north of 10% this season while also maintaining a K Rate of less than 20%. More so, Pauley was rarely a candidate to swing and miss at strikes, and he was under a nine percent swinging strike rate, and it was as low as 6.94% into late June of 2023.
For context on just how impressive that is, the MLB average swinging-strike rate is around 11%. Pauley’s selectiveness and discipline are not only rare for a player of his age, but they’re also a weapon. This can be exemplified by his wOBA of .417 in Single-A, .433 in High Single-A, and .409 in Double-A. Pauley’s overall disciplined approach is a significant reason for his rapid rise.
“The discipline just comes from a lot of reps. Seeing live pitches in a game, but also tuning the hitting machine to over 100 MPH.” said Pauley, “I am a big proponent of training harder than what you are going to see in the game. I think it has really helped me to over-exaggerate what I’m going to be seeing in the game and in practice. So that when you get to the game, it becomes easier.”
Another critical factor in Pauley’s approach and discipline at the plate can be traced to his hands. Pauley has some of the quickest hands in the minors. It’s why his SwStr% was as low as it was. They allowed him to spoil quality pitches to avoid strikeouts, drive the ball to the pull side with power, and flick pitches to the opposite field.
“I think growing up playing a lot of sports and being a good overall athlete helped develop my hand-eye. But training-wise, I think working my core, forearms, and counting to train my hand-eye helped me take another step in terms of hand speed and getting the barrel to the ball quicker.” Pauley explained.
“And I definitely think my hand’s speed has come into play in reducing my strikeouts. I hate striking out, which I’ve always prided myself on. I don’t want to be a high strikeout guy; to me, that’s something I can always fall back on. And the hand-eye and quickness is something I can credit that to.”
As time has passed, Pauley has only gained more and more trust in his hands and overall approach; this can be seen in another slight tweak he made coming out of college to now. At Duke, Pauley’s stance in the box was a hair more crouched and closed. Now, after a full season+ in the Padres organization, his stance is more upright, with his hands being looser.
“In college, I had good hands and hand-eye, but I didn’t trust them as much as I do now. The crouch was more of an overcompensation at that time, trying to be quicker and not trying to load as much.” Pauley said, “But once I just learned to trust my hands and just be more fluid with my swing, it allowed more to stand more upright and create more power by being more fluid rather than being rigged and just trying to make contact.”
2024 Offseason & Opportunity.
With Pauley’s other world-like play in 2023, the young 23-year-old has found himself with the opportunity to not only see extended play and opportunities in spring training this coming March. But also the possibility of breaking camp with the Padres.
However, to do so, Pauley will more than likely be asked to play in his nontraditional position. An infielder by trade, a position the Padres are currently long jammed at with players like Ha-Song Kim, Manny Machado, and fellow top prospect Jackson Merrill, Pauley would more than likely be asked to play more the role of utility man with a majority of that time being spent at one of the corner outfield positions.
It’s a position not entirely foreign for Pauley. He played 25 games in the outfield last season, about 190 Innings, per Baseball America, the bulk of which saw him in left field. That position is undoubtedly still in limbo for the Friars here in late January.
“Defensively, this offseason, my goal has been to get better at every position. It’s too much to ask to be a Gold Glover at every position right now. But I want to take steps forward at every position possible.” Pauley commented. “As the season went on in 2023, I got more comfortable in the outfield. Just between live in-game reps, working on tracking and routes in BP, and taking as many reps as I could help. By the time I hit the Fall League, I was playing a lot of outfield, and I felt very comfortable out there. Going into this year, I’m going to be confident out there and continue to grow.”
Regardless, for Pauley to have a shot at the 2024 Padres’ opening day roster, he knows he is going to have to earn his spot, and he is going to need to beat out others in Peoria. But the opportunity to compete with and soak up knowledge from current MLB is one that he looks forward to.
“First thing is always friendly competition. I love competition and think having that on a team is always great. It pushes me as much as the guy next to me, so I hope I can bring that to the table and drive others to do the same.” said Pauley. “Even more, I’m excited to learn. I’m a big student of the game, and I want to learn from the best, from the staff, from other players, and see what it takes to be one of the best of the best.”
I’m a proud San Diegan by birth and have lived here in San Diego for most of my life. For college I attended Sonoma State University, where I received my bachelor’s degree in communications; following my graduation, I returned home to San Diego, where I have worked in the local San Diego media sports scene since 2020.