The park pitchers hate pitching at the most is almost universally Coors Field. According to ESPN it has been the most hitter-friendly ballpark since 2012. Although it’s not the most home run friendly park, it does lend it’s fair share of home runs and has been notorious for doing so.
Jon Gray has inherited the unlucky task of trying to be the Colorado Rockies ace. With a 5.52 ERA, ranked third worst among qualifiers so far this season, it’s hard to give him that label. He’s certainly trying, but with close to half of his starts at Coors Field, it’s a steep uphill climb.
The one killer at Coors field is hard-hit fly balls because they usually turn into extra base hits and often home runs. This year Gray has a career low in soft contact rate and the highest hard contact rate the past three seasons.
It’s not like Gray’s other numbers aren’t there; he’s striking out batters at a 29 percent clip and his walk rate is seven percent, which is hardly any change from last season’s numbers. He has a career low in left on base percentage and a career high in home runs per fly ball rate, though, which is often a recipe for disaster, especially at Coors. Yet we cannot blame Coors alone as he only pitches roughly half of his starts there, which means the other half have at least some pitcher friendly ballparks in there.
Out of his 17 starts, only five of them has he allowed less than three runs. Some of these starts are at Coors field while others are at places like Philadelphia and Cincinnati, not well known hitter-friendly ballparks. Ironically, you could say he’s struggling worse on the road than at home.
Gray’s Home/Away Splits
Diving into what’s causing Gray’s struggles seems to stem from his fastball. He uses it around 51 percent of the time but it has a .428 wOBA against it. He has given up seven of the 11 (63.6%) total home runs off the fastball, three of the four triples, 12 out of the 22 (54.5%) doubles, and 37 of the 71 (52.1%) singles he’s allowed.
So while, yes, his fastball is used 50 percent of the time, it’s allowing far more than 50 percent of the hits. Also, 64 percent of his 28 walks have come off the fastball as well. To sum it up, the results off his fastball are far worse than should be expected.
Now, what is making his fastball so bad? Well, it’s a combination of things. First is location. As you can see in the chart below, he’s putting a high amount of pitches right over the center of the plate. Even with Gray’s 95 mph average velocity, it’s still going to be crushed when you put it there that often. He has located a good amount of his pitches on the edges of the zone, which is exactly what you want, but he’s still putting too many pitches in the center.
Secondly is a change in release point. It has shifted about a half of an inch up and an inch and a half further away from his body, which may not sound like a lot, but it has profound effects on how you pitch.
He’s lost horizontal and vertical movement on all four of his pitches, with exception to his slider’s horizontal movement, which has increased slightly.
Adding to the puzzle is that batters are making far less contact both in and out of the zone. He’s dropped his out of zone contact rate by 17 percent and his zone contact rate has dipped a full five percent. His zone percentage has only dropped less than a percent and batters are swinging at almost the exact same rate as what they were last year.
Additionally, he’s increased his swinging strike rate by over four percent and he’s not throwing any more balls than he did last year. So, what gives? Why is he struggling if nothing has really changed besides the release point?
One thing that’s very noticeable is that is that his wOBA ticks up a bit with runners on base. In reality, most of the issues Gray has is a trickle-down effect from his poor preforming fastball. When they ambush the fastball in any count, with a total of two or less balls and/or strikes, batters have a .418 batting average against, a .718 slugging percentage, and a isolated power of .300.
While the release point is likely responsible for at least some of Gray’s struggles these first three months of the season, the fastball being ambushed for power is really what’s killing him. He has begun adjusting to that, though, slightly decreasing his fastball usage early in counts and increasing his other three pitches usage, especially the changeup, over the past nine starts.
While it’s hard to watch Gray struggle, at the base of his game almost everything is there. A lot of it has to do with chance and an adjustment in release point. However, if he can get that under control while commanding the fastball better and lean less on it early in counts, I am confident Gray will return to last year’s form and likely even better than that.