I remember thinking to myself during the 2013 MLB draft that if I were the Houston Astros and I had the first pick, I would select Oklahoma right-hander Jon Gray. That was really based on no inside knowledge. It was merely the result of the obsessive reading and re-reading of pre-draft scouting reports. But still, I knew Gray was going to be awesome and observed with condescension as the Astros and Cubs passed on him.
Mark Appel? He’s a senior, and that’s boring. Stuff’s not that good anyway. Kris Bryant? Overrated — he’s not going to be able to overcome his swing and miss issues. One for two, I guess.
But ultimately Gray fell to third, where he was snapped up by the Colorado Rockies. Regardless of whether you were as bullish on him at the time as I was, I think we all felt the same thing once we saw which organization he would be playing for: disappointment.
Even if Gray was exactly as good as I and others expected, his numbers would never reflect it because he would be spending half of his innings in Denver. That goes against the sabermetric axiom of the process always being more important than the result, but we’re all hypocrites on some level, right? Plus, games aren’t decided by FIP or whatever pitching metric you prefer. They’re decided by real-life runs.
It wasn’t just about Coors Field, though. It was also about the Rockies as an organization, and their long-standing track record of seemingly having an inability to develop pitchers in the minor leagues. Not only did the Rockies seldom have good major league pitchers — they rarely had good pitching prospects (if there is such a thing). The moment he was drafted, Gray became the club’s best since Franklin Morales in 2008, and we know how that turned out.
And after the post-draft shine wore off a little bit, that line of thinking — that the Rockies would ultimately doom Gray — seemed at least somewhat prescient. His stuff took a step back, and his numbers were nothing impressive in either 2014 or 2015. His prospect ranking dropped every season he spent in professional baseball.
Now, that last sentence sounds worse than it is in reality. Gray’s ranking went from 12 to 24 to 37 from 2014 to 2016. Even at his nadir, he was still a blue chipper. But things were certainly trending in the wrong direction, and there were some legitimate questions about whether he would ever live up to the hype he generated in college.
But then the Rockies gave Gray 29 starts in the big leagues and he was the perfect combination of that pre-draft excitement and that immediate post-draft reminder that, Oh yeah, he plays a mile above sea level. The peripherals were outstanding, but the results were mixed. Such is life for a Colorado pitcher, even when they’ve got things going well.
So while that means it’s unlikely you’ll ever see Gray put up a sub-three ERA in a full season, he still has all of the tools he needs to be the most successful pitcher the Rockies have developed since...Ubaldo Jimenez? Ever?
It all starts with his two main offerings: a fastball and a slider. What makes both so effective, first and foremost, are their velocities:
Jon Gray fastball/slider velocity
|FB velo percentile
|SL velo percentile
|FB velo percentile
|SL velo percentile
That’s not quite Syndergaardian, but it’s close. The fastball generates a relatively average amount of whiffs, but Gray throws it only about 56 percent of the time, far less than the league average of 62 percent. That approach allows his secondaries, particularly the slider, to play up.
The slider isn’t going to blow anyone away with how much it breaks, but because it’s coming in at nearly 90 miles per hour, it can be a devastating pitch:
Overall, batters hit just .174 against the thing, and whiffed at it on over 43 percent of their swings, 11th best in the major leagues. It’s not just velocity and movement that make it effective, however — Gray does an excellent job of locating the pitch, just as he did against Kolten Wong in the video above:
That combination of decent movement, elite velocity, and excellent command make it easy to see why Gray’s slider was one of the best pitches in 2016, according to FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris, and should continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Beyond those two primaries, Gray also throws a changeup and curveball. The change is his weakest pitch right now — its velocity and movement are both mediocre at best — and batters teed off against it, slugging .489 in 2016. Gray currently throws it about seven percent of the time, and even that might be too much.
The curveball shows more promise, however. It’s just that the slider is so good that Gray doesn’t really need to have a second breaking ball to get people out. The pitch has some fairly decent break, but it doesn’t garner a whole lot of swings and misses even though Gray commands it fairly well. It’s a pitch worth continuing to tinker with, especially since it’s very hard for a starter to succeed with just two pitches, but fastball/slider is always going to be Gray’s bread and butter. Fortunately, he seems to be aware of that.
So at just 25 years old and with one very good season under his belt, Gray figures to keep improving from here. As long as he doesn’t allow the frustration of pitching in Coors Field get to him, he figures to be at least a borderline All-Star going forward.
When we talk about their Rockies and their chances to make the postseason, we tend to mention their impressive lineup first and foremost. But with Gray at the front of their rotation, hitting their way to October may not be the only way Colorado can get there. The chances are still slim, but for the first time in a long time, the Rockies can point to a homegrown talent in their rotation and know that he can give them a full season of great work.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.