After Lots Of Tweaks, Gray Ready To Step Up

Jon Gray is hoping to parlay a refined delivery, an additional breaking pitch and lessons learned from two months in the majors last year into a spot in the Rockies’ rotation.

Whether Jon Gray begins the season in the Rockies rotation, there should be little worry that he needs more minor league time. A look at college starting pitchers drafted in the top 10 picks of drafts in the 21st century shows Gray (and Mark Appel) have compiled much more minor league time than many of their peers. In Gray’s case he stopped the clock at 276 innings with his big league debut. Appel is set to begin the 2016 season in the minors, so he’s still adding to his 253 minor league innings. Most of the pitchers with as much minor league seasoning as Gray and Appel have struggled in their major league careers, though Matt Harvey and Jeff Francis serve as positive examples of top draft picks who needed significant minor league time.
Drafted Player G IP
2009 Mike Leake 0 0
2006 Andrew Miller 3 5
2006 Brandon Morrow 8 16
2007 Ross Detwiler 9 33
2014 Carlos Rodon 11 35
2001 Mark Prior 9 51
2009 Stephen Strasburg 11 55
2006 Tim Lincecum 13 63
2011 Trevor Bauer 15 74
2004 Justin Verlander 13 86
2014 * Kyle Freeland 19 86
2012 Kevin Gausman 21 97
2010 Drew Pomeranz 20 101
2014 * Jeff Hoffman 20 104
2007 David Price 19 110
2008 Brian Matusz 19 113
2009 Mike Minor 25 134
2004 Phil Humber 29 151
2001 Dewon Brazelton 27 151
2006 Greg Reynolds 32 163
2014 Aaron Nola 30 165
2006 Luke Hochevar 31 167
2003 Tim Stauffer 28 168
2011 * Danny Hultzen 35 168
AVERAGE 40 190
2005 Mike Pelfrey 37 198
2011 Gerrit Cole 38 200
2005 # Wade Townsend 64 211
2003 Paul Maholm 42 212
2012 * Kyle Zimmer 61 217
2010 Matt Harvey 46 246
2013 * Mark Appel 54 253
2004 Jeremy Sowers 42 257
2012 Andrew Heaney 49 259
2003 # Kyle Sleeth 62 263
2013 Jon Gray 54 276
2002 Jeff Francis 52 346
2006 Brad Lincoln 67 358
2004 Jeff Niemann 74 372
2007 Daniel Moskos 155 376
2002 Bryan Bulington 68 392
2005 Ricky Romero 81 430
2001 # Josh Karp 102 475
2004 Thomas Diamond 138 543
*Has not reached majors yet
#Did not reach majors

The opportunity is certainly there. The Rockies added several power arms to their bullpen but did not acquire a starting pitcher after their 2015 rotation finished last in the big leagues in ERA (5.27), innings pitched (857?) and strikeouts (621). With starters Jorge De La Rosa and Chad Bettis set, the Rockies are banking on Jordan Lyles and Tyler Chatwood contributing now that they’re healthy and hopeful that Gray, 24, can continue to grow.

“That level of consistency that it takes to perform in this league, that’s the next step for young players,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. “And I think that’s what it is for Jonny.”

The third overall pick in the 2013 draft, Gray made his much-anticipated major league debut Aug. 4. His ninth and last start on Sept. 21, a rough outing against the Pirates, put Gray at 41 innings with the Rockies and 155 for the season. That was a 25 percent increase from Gray’s 124 innings at Double-A Tulsa in 2014, his first full professional season, so the Rockies shut Gray down.

Another 25 percent increase this year would put Gray at 194 innings, a full workload and why Weiss said, “He’s got the shackles off.”

Gray fully understood why he was on an innings limit last year. While it was frustrating, he accepted that the organization, eyeing his future, knew what was best for him in the short run. Now, he’s ecstatic the restrictions are history.

“I feel like I’m getting the same opportunity as everyone else,” he said, “and (I can) go out there and prove that I can eat up those innings. I don’t want to jinx myself; I’ve never been a guy that’s struggled with wearing out over a long season. So I think I’m going to hold up pretty well and learn a lot more.”

Gray went 0-2, 5.53 last year, averaging 8.9 walks and 3.1 strikeouts per nine innings. His second start was against the Mets on Aug. 10, the outing Weiss said “jumps out at me” when he said Gray last season showed “flashes of brilliance.”

He threw 75 pitches in his only six-inning outing and allowed one run on one hit—Travis d’Arnaud’s homer. The Mets, who reached the World Series, “were playing very well,” Weiss said.

Gray finished with dramatic home-road splits. He went 0-1, 2.70 in 20 innings on the road where opposing hitters had a .643 OPS. They had a 1.043 OPS against Gray at Coors Field where he went 0-1, 8.27 in 21 innings.

“We got a very small sample size of that home-road thing,” Weiss said. “I’m not concerned about Jonny being able to pitch at our place. That’s not a concern whatsoever.”

Adjustments To Make

After last season, Gray realized he had to “be in attack mode with every pitch.” Gray said that sometimes wasn’t the case “because of the fear of walking people. But I don’t live with that anymore.”

He also said he wanted to do a better job of pitching inside, getting ahead of hitters, being more effective with two strikes and being smarter with his secondary pitches. That group now includes a curveball in addition to a slider and changeup. According to Pitch FX, hitters facing Gray last year saw a 94 mph fastball, an 87 mph slider and an 85 mph changeup.

But he also watched teammate Bettis, who throws a mid-90s fastball, cause hitters problems with his high 70s curveball. Gray was all for trying to learn the pitch. Rockies bullpen coach Darren Holmes said Gray was able to spin the ball immediately when playing catch last season. He first threw the curveball in a bullpen session this spring. The pitch has a 12-to-6 break, Holmes said, and Gray is working to get his release point on the pitch consistent.

“It’s a pitch that over the year, it’ll evolve, and we’ll talk to him about spots to use it,” Holmes said. “But he needs to use it, because I think come all-star break, it’s going to be a good pitch for him.”

Gray moved from the first- to the third-base side of the rubber last season before joining the Rockies to give his slider more room to break. Gray continued to creep off the third-base side, so pitching coach Steve Foster and Holmes moved him to the middle of the rubber, so he could have better plate coverage with his two-seamer.

In the side session following his major league debut, Holmes and Foster began working with Gray to quiet and simplify his delivery. The extra hand movement is gone. He has minimized his head movement. And he’s no longer swinging his lift leg back, causing his weight to shift to his heel, his front side to open and Gray to miss arm side with a lot of pitches.

“He had a lot of moving parts,” Holmes said. “So what we did was really clean it up, put him in a position when he lifts his leg, he’s loading as he lifts instead of lifting his leg and having to swing it back to load.”

This spring, Gray has seen “things I’m working on coming together,” giving him confidence he can seize his opportunity and secure a spot in the Rockies’ Opening Day rotation.

“He’s being a good student and he’s listening and he’s open to anything,” Holmes said. “He wants to get better. He has no ego, and he’s done a really good job allowing us to make some big changes with him. And he did it in the course of while he was pitching in the big leagues.”

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