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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.
2009Mike Leake00
2006Andrew Miller35
2006Brandon Morrow816
2007Ross Detwiler933
2014Carlos Rodon1135
2001Mark Prior951
2009Stephen Strasburg1155
2006Tim Lincecum1363
2011Trevor Bauer1574
2004Justin Verlander1386
2014 *Kyle Freeland1986
2012Kevin Gausman2197
2010Drew Pomeranz20101
2014 *Jeff Hoffman20104
2007David Price19110
2008Brian Matusz19113
2009Mike Minor25134
2004Phil Humber29151
2001Dewon Brazelton27151
2006Greg Reynolds32163
2014Aaron Nola30165
2006Luke Hochevar31167
2003Tim Stauffer28168
2011 *Danny Hultzen35168
2005Mike Pelfrey37198
2011Gerrit Cole38200
2005 #Wade Townsend64211
2003Paul Maholm42212
2012 *Kyle Zimmer61217
2010Matt Harvey46246
2013 *Mark Appel54253
2004Jeremy Sowers42257
2012Andrew Heaney49259
2003 #Kyle Sleeth62263
2013Jon Gray54276
2002Jeff Francis52346
2006Brad Lincoln67358
2004Jeff Niemann74372
2007Daniel Moskos155376
2002Bryan Bulington68392
2005Ricky Romero81430
2001 #Josh Karp102475
2004Thomas Diamond138543
*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 (857⅔) 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
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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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