The year of the prospect continues, as the Colorado Rockies have purchased the contract of right-handed pitcher Jon Gray. He’s set to make his major league debut tonight against the Mariners. Gray will be the 17th prospect from Baseball America’s pre-season top 25 to see major league action this season. Gray has ranked as either the first or second best prospect in the Rockies organization from all major outlets over the last two seasons.
The Rockies drafted the 23-year-old Gray out of the University of Oklahoma third overall in the 2013 amateur draft. After being drafted, Gray pitched 13 dominant innings in Rookie ball, where he struck out over ten batters per nine innings. The Rockies then promoted him to High-A Modesto, and he was even better. Gray gave up three runs and ten hits in 24 innings while striking out 13.5 batters per nine. A mid-90s fastball and a wipeout slider powered those innings.
In 2014, Gray took some steps back in order to take steps forward. Gray’s development truly began in 2014, when the Rockies instructed him to stop throwing his slider as frequently and to develop a changeup. Gray’s line from Double-A Tulsa in 2014 saw his strikeout rate decline to 8.2 per nine innings. His walk rate also jumped to three per nine, whereas in 2013 it was 1.9 across two levels. So along with learning to throw the changeup and rely less on the slider, he also had to command it, and he has had some trouble doing so. The Rockies shut Gray down after 124 innings last season due to fatigue.
Gray began the 2015 season in Triple-A Albuquerque. It did not begin well. Over his first seven starts, Gray compiled a 7.75 ERA. Encouragingly, however, Gray maintained a K/9 of about eight even through the rough patch. In Gray’s 14 starts since, however, he allowed more than three runs just twice. In all, Gray has a 4.33 ERA over 114 1/3 innings pitched, and he’s struck out 8.7 batters per nine innings while walking 3.2.
There are things to keep an eye out for regarding Gray’s repertoire. The first is his fastball velocity and command. The fastball will sit mostly between 93-95 mph. Gray can dial it up to 97-98, but he loses command when he does so. We might see those either in high leverage situations or when a star—say Robinson Cano or Nelson Cruz—is up to bat. During spring training, Gray struck out Paul Goldschmidt on a 97 mph fastball. He was asked about it after the game and said he was "saving that one for him." The young pitcher has a competitive spirit along with a nice fastball.
Gray’s slider used to be described as "wipeout," and it wasn’t uncommon for it to get a plus-plus tag. More recent reports have had much less praise, and it wasn’t all due to him being instructed not to throw the pitch in 2014.
The success of Gray’s changeup relies on his command of it. The very small sample of 37 pitches on Brooks Baseball captured his changeup at 83 mph, which is a nice separation of velocity. Ideally, the pitch will be able to get swings and misses, but scouting reports indicate that a fair amount of contact is made against the pitch. The Rockies have emphasized inducing weak contact for their pitchers, so that might be intentional. The versatility of the pitch is something to look out for.
When his secondary stuff is at its best, it will look something like the following two visual depictions, which show Gray getting Wils Nieves and Myers to swing and miss during a spring training game from early March.
fine. mongrels. here's your precious "normal" view. https://t.co/Dzv5QXmUuZ— Craig Goldstein (@cdgoldstein) March 8, 2015
hoping to become a vine star on the back of Jon Gray breaking balls https://t.co/GoUiKFCSAZ— Craig Goldstein (@cdgoldstein) March 8, 2015
Prior to the season, ZiPS projected Gray to have a 4.47 ERA and a 4.52 FIP against major league competition, both of which adjust to slightly below league average figures. It also pegged him to have an 18 percent strikeout rate. These are unexciting numbers that might be expected from a rookie starting pitcher. But Gray is entering the Colorado Rockies rotation, and those numbers translate to him being at least the second best pitcher on the staff, if not the best. Unless Gray is a disaster, the remainder of his 2015 pitches will be for the Colorado Rockies.