Sooners Pack Quite The One-Two Punch
LOS ANGELES—It's easy to see why Dillon Overton and Jonathan Gray are best friends. Both have easygoing, gregarious personalities. They like to laugh, and to make others laugh.
"He's a different cat, that's exactly how I'd say it," Overton said of Gray. "He's one of my best friends, and he will be forever. He loves to dance. He'll come into a room, bust a dance move and then he'll walk away, like nothing happened. He's just a fun guy to be around."
But on the mound, Oklahoma's co-aces and are very different. Overton is a skinny 6-foot-2, 160-pound lefthander with outstanding innate feel for his three-pitch mix, and a fastball comfort zone of 88-90. Gray is a prototypical power righthander, with a physical 6-foot-4, 239-pound build and a fastball that reaches triple digits.
"What's funny is Dillon and Jon, they're total opposites," OU pitching coach Jack Giese said. "Because Dillon's got that super-fast arm, and Jon looks like he's playing catch with his grandfather out in the backyard."
Yes—just playing catch at 94-98 mph, with minimal effort. Gray's bazooka arm has made him a prospect of interest since his freshman year at Eastern Oklahoma State JC, but as he has learned to refine his command and secondary stuff, his draft stock has soared. After Gray showed dazzling stuff during seven shutout innings in a win at UCLA in front of a gaggle of the scouting community's heavy hitters, the buzz intensified. He touched 100 multiple times in the second and third innings, and he was still throwing 98 mph in the seventh, after he had reached the 100-pitch mark. But that wasn't all; he complemented his heater with a plus slider with good depth that ranged from 82-87 mph, and he mixed in a handful of quality 83-84 mph changeups with good bottom.
It was hard not to think of another physical power righty who toed the rubber at Jackie Robinson Stadium plenty of times in the past—former Bruin Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Gray left UCLA's coaches with a feeling that they had just been beaten by another potential top-five overall pick.
"I'll tell you, he mixed as well as any power pitcher that I've seen in a while," UCLA head coach John Savage said after Oklahoma's 4-0 win. "You've got to give credit where credit's due. When we were looking for a fastball, he threw his breaking ball, he threw his change. It wasn't rear back and let it go and not pitch—it was pitching. It was impressive. I was impressed. He was the best guy we've faced by far this year, and it was because of one, the velocity; two, the command; and three, the mix. It was a true mix: 3-2 change, 3-2 slider—I mean, come on. There certainly was some Cole—yeah, there was. I think anyone that sat back there would have to agree. It was three major league pitches."
Gray's development has accelerated at an impressive clip since he arrived at Oklahoma for his sophomore year. He grew up always wanting be a Sooner—as a football player. He played defensive end and tight end in high school, catching passes from older brother Jack, who went on to play college football at Division II Northeastern State in Oklahoma. But Jonathan realized he had a chance to be drafted in baseball, so he gave up football as a senior—though he says he still misses it.
Gray originally signed with Oklahoma out of high school, but he wasn't ready for the Big 12, so he spent his freshman year in junior-college ball. In high school, he sometimes ran his fastball up to 92 or 94 mph, but as a freshman he occasionally bumped 97-98. He sat regularly in the mid-90s as a sophomore at OU, but his command and feel for pitching had a long way to go. He progressed steadily under Giese's tutelage and finished the season 8-4, 3.16 with 104 strikeouts and 42 walks in 103 innings.
He capped his season with a memorable start at two-time defending national champion South Carolina super regionals. The Sooners were facing elimination after losing the opener, but Gray was ready for Game Two.
"We're playing South Carolina, he comes down to pregame meal in his uniform, and I'm a little worried, thinking he's pretty nervous—Game Two in a super regional against South Carolina," Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway said. "But the reason he has his uniform on is he wanted to have time after his meal to go to every one of his teammates' room and tell them, 'Don't get on the bus unless you're going to find victory, because we ain't losing today.' You know what? He wasn't wrong, he was right—we didn't lose that day."
In wet conditions, Gray threw six shutout innings against the Gamecocks, allowing just three hits while striking out nine. But play was suspended by rain with the two teams locked in a scoreless tie, and the Gamecocks jumped on the Oklahoma bullpen when play resumed the next day, ending OU's season. Still, it was an important milestone for Gray's development.
"Having that success in that atmosphere against that good ballclub, I think really helped him," Giese said. "You can always look back at your career and see that one moment where you grew, and I give it to that moment for him."
Gray's velocity jumped again this fall, when he touched triple digits on the radar gun for the first time in his life. But more importantly, he spent the offseason working with Giese on refining his secondary stuff. Giese wants him to throw his slider hard, targeting 88 mph. He threw a couple at 87 against UCLA, and they were his best sliders of the day, with vicious bite. But he can take a little off it and throw it at 82-83 when he really needs a strike, which is a sign of his maturation.
The Sooners are wary of throwing too many changeups because his other two pitches can be so devastating, but they know it is important for his development to hone that pitch. And it can be another weapon for him.
"When my changeup's on, it's money, and I throw it a lot," said Gray, who is 4-1, 1.51 with 39 strikeouts and eight walks through 36 innings. "(Giese) usually gives me about four or five chances to throw it early on, to see if I can throw it for a strike or if it's effective. But that opens up a whole new game. It's easy.
"My main goal is to become a full pitcher, not just a guy who goes out there and throws. Because I want to have both pitchability and power. I think they'll go great together."
Pitchability is Overton's calling card. He was polished even as a freshman, when he went 8-4, 2.30 in 74 innings, split between the bullpen and a starting role. He moved into the Friday starter job last year and established himself as a workhorse ace, going 6-3, 3.15 with 126 strikeouts and 24 walks in 123 innings. In a Big 12 tournament matchup with Oklahoma State lefthander Andrew Heaney—who went on to become a first-round pick—Overton threw 71⁄3 shutout innings, helping the Sooners earn a memorable 1-0 win. By that point in the season, he also could reach back for 94 mph heat when he really needed it.
"His career's been a lot like Andrew Heaney at Oklahoma State," Golloway said. "He really came on as a sophomore, and now as a junior everybody's looking at him. I think Heaney will pitch in the big leagues, and I think Dillon Overton will pitch in the big leagues."
Scouts agree with him on that. One American League scouting director raved about Overton's loose arm action and "beautiful mechanics," as well as his superb feel for his plus changeup, which comes in at 78-80 with good arm-side fade. Overton said Giese helped him alter the grip on his changeup to get a little more two-seam movement, and now he calls it his favorite pitch, and his out pitch.
But he said Giese has also helped him improve his 74-76 curveball, which shows tight, sharp rotation when he's really got it working.
"That helps me out, because if I throw it on the same lane as a fastball, it really looks like a fastball, and it just breaks at the last minute," Overton said. "When it's really on, it's on, and I feel just as comfortable with that as my changeup and fastball."
Overton didn't have his best feel in Los Angeles, when he pitched through a steady drizzle at Southern California's Dedeaux Field on a Friday night. Bad weather has followed Overton from start to start through the season's first month, but he has still battled his way to a 5-1, 3.13 line with 35 strikeouts and eight walks in 37 innings. He gave up five runs (four earned) on 13 hits at USC, but in typical Overton fashion, he competed hard and threw a complete game on 105 pitches. His fastball topped out at 90 in that one, working at 86-88 in the late innings, but he carries himself like true power pitcher.
"I'm not that big of a guy. I'm skinny and I'm lanky, but when you have the body type I have, you kind of have to have that attitude, because most hitters don't think you're all that, so you've got to show them that you are," Overton said. "Ever since I can remember, I've had that attitude where, I'm the best, and I'm going to try to get you out no matter what, whether it's striking you out, popping you up or getting you to ground out—it doesn't matter as long as you're out."
The Sooners flip-flopped Overton and Gray in the rotation this past weekend against Northwestern State, and both delivered strong performances, leading OU to a sweep. Oklahoma should win a lot of series with that pair taking the mound two out of every three games on weekends.
"They've got a 'C' on their jersey for a reason; they're two of our captains along with Jack Mayfield and Max White, who played in Omaha in 2010," Golloway said. "They get along real well, they're really good friends. They both would like to pitch on Friday night; we go with Dillon because he's got an extra year of experience over Jon.
"They're different guys. It's a pretty good one-two punch, and we're very fortunate to have them."