Rockies righthander Jon Gray is driven to be great. He talks about becoming for the Rockies what Clayton Kershaw is for the Dodgers—a No. 1 starter who takes the mound and allows his teammates to take a deep breath.
The 25-year-old Gray has the ability to be just that. But it takes time.
Instant success that is sustained over a lengthy career is rare for starting pitchers. And in his third big league season, Gray gets it. There are frustrations, but they are merely detours that he and others have navigated.
Or as Rockies manager Bud Black, a former big league pitcher, puts it: “Patience has to take place. It's about understanding your stuff and making adjustments."
After going 10-3, 1.64 as an Oklahoma junior in 2013, Gray was drafted third overall by the Rockies, immediately after the Cubs selected Kris Bryant.
Twenty-six months later, Gray was in the big leagues.
Though he went just 13-13, 4.95 through his first 46 big league starts, both Gray and the Rockies are confident he can succeed at Coors Field, where he had recorded a 4.90 ERA, compared with 4.99 on the road.
“He is still settling into a comfortable routine," Black said. “The big thing is the confidence boost as he moves forward."
Developing into a front-line starter takes time. Notably, Adam Wainwright (63 relief appearances), Zack Greinke (41), Roy Halladay (25) and Max Scherzer (nine) all spent time in the bullpen before breaking through as ace starters. Two-time Cy Young Award winner Halladay floundered so badly—running up a 10.64 ERA in 2000—that he was demoted all the way to high Class A to remake his delivery and gain confidence.
The Rockies' Opening Day starter this year, Gray lasted three starts before going on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left foot that he suffered in spring training.
Gray arrived in pro ball with a lights-out slider and a dominating fastball. As he worked his way to the big leagues, the realization set in that it takes more than two pitches to be an elite pitcher. Gray has added a curveball and changeup, both of which have been impressive, but both of which need to become more a part of his routine.
“This isn't something new," Black said. “Look at (Greg) Maddux, (John) Smoltz and (Tom) Glavine. There are bumps in the road along the way."
Pitchers who are mentally tough can weather the storm of early frustration. The best pitchers see adversity as a challenge and embrace the chance to get better.
Even Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers have their struggles early. Consider the five starting pitchers inducted into Cooperstown in the past decade:
• Randy Johnson went 49-48, 3.95 his first five seasons and 818 innings.
• Pedro Martinez worked as a reliever his first two years with the Dodgers. Manager Tommy Lasorda was convinced he was too frail to be a durable starter.
• Smoltz ran up a 5.48 ERA as a rookie in 1988.
• Glavine went 9-21, 4.76 his first two seasons with the Braves, then won a Cy Young Award in his fifth year.
• Maddux went 8-18, 5.59 his first two years with the Cubs.
“There is a learning curve," Black said.
Gray was showing signs of being a quick learner.