Now Healthy, Brewers Prospect Joe Gray Begins To Show His Tools

Image credit: Joe Gray (Photo by Bill Mitchell)

The first season of pro ball for any new draft pick is a difficult adjustment, especially for those making the jump from high school. It’s even tougher for players from regions outside the normal baseball hotbeds, as is the case for prep prospects from states like Mississippi.

Brewers outfield prospect Joe Gray had an even more challenging first pro season in 2018 due to a bout of pneumonia that put the Hattiesburg, Miss., product on the sidelines for a couple of weeks. The righthanded-hitting outfielder also lost a significant amount of weight during the summer and was constantly battling fatigue.

Gray made the best of a tough situation, however, with his first professional season in the Rookie-level Arizona League still being an incredible learning experience for the second-round pick.

“You’re going to face a lot of stuff in pro ball,” Gray said. “And it just so happened that my first thing was sickness. I played through it . . . Maybe I shouldn’t have played through it, but when I got back, I put in a lot of work with hitting coach (Brent) Del Chiaro . . . We swung it, we swung it, we swung it. By the time I got really healthy the AZL (season) actually ended. I came back out here for fall instructs and I swung a very, very hot bat.”

Gray certainly had a lot to prove after turning pro. Earlier in his scholastic career, he was considered to be a potential early first-round pick, but his struggles to make consistent contact had talent evaluators questioning whether he would hit enough to be able to get to his plus raw power. Those concerns dropped Gray to the second round, where the Brewers took him with 60th overall pick and signed him for a $1,113,500 bonus. Gray believes that some of his issues during the high school summer showcase circuit in 2017 could be attributed to the pressure he put on himself.

“When it comes to the process with the showcase ball and the traveling, you do have to take it seriously if your goal is the be drafted,” Gray said. “But don’t make it be so conscious that you’re pressing yourself and not being the player that you’re used to being . . . I was taking in the draft so much that I was pressing myself when I was playing.”

Gray performed better when his Hattiesburg High team was invited to play in USA Baseball’s National High School Invitational in the spring of his senior year, mentioning that he was more focused on helping his team win rather than trying to showcase himself for scouts.

Despite not being drafted as highly as expected, Gray has good memories of the experience.

“That day I got my name called,” Gray said, “it’s one of the best days of my life.”

If it all comes together for Gray and he continues to develop his impressive set of tools, the Brewers may have a middle-of-the-order power hitter capable of playing any outfield position.

“He has the tools, no doubt about it,” said Rafael Neda, Gray’s manager in Rookie-ball last year and again in extended spring training. “He’s a really athletic kid with a high ceiling. We’ve started to see that. His body is starting to mature more, he’s starting to get a little stronger and you just start to see that power show in practice and in games as well. He’s making good adjustments compared to last year . . . he’s started to minimize movements in his swing, and it’s starting to pay off.”

While Gray struggled during his rookie season, primarily because of his health, a positive sign was that he remained patient at the plate and drew a fair number of walks. Now that he’s 100 percent healthy, Gray is looking more like the premier prospect with crazy loud tools from his earlier projections. Scouts covering extended spring training have noticed that the timing on his swing has improved, and that while he still has a long swing, he is using his hands well, keeping them back to let balls travel to the opposite field.

According to Gray, he’s been able to make those improvements without a major swing overhaul.

“In extended (spring training) we made some changes with my swing,” Gray said. “But the thing is, I’ve always had that loose and very, very raw power approach coming out of high school. The biggest thing for me is whenever I’m comfortable at the plate and whenever I’m loose, I’m just staying athletic . . . That’s when big things happen to me at the plate.

“(I’m) not trying to be robotic, not trying to overcompensate for stuff. Just go up to the plate, have the same swing, and be consistent . . . Now when I’m going up to the plate, I’m not thinking. I’m just going up there looking for a pitch to hit in my zone.”

The consistency that Gray mentions is part of what he believes is the most important lesson learned since joining the Brewers organization—having a consistent approach and having a voice in the back of his head saying, “Let’s do this and stay with what you’ve been practicing.”

Gray has been very open to instruction and suggestions from the Brewers staff and is willing to make adjustments as needed.

“He’s great to work with,” Neda said. “If there are things he needs to work on and you address it with him and tell him the reasons why, he sees it right away . . . He continues to work on those things because he wants to improve his game.”

Gray is also appreciative of how the Brewers’ staff is teaching him how to be a professional on and off the field, with accountability being the most important lesson resonating with him.

“Learning to be a grown man while playing a sport, being held accountable every time we come to the field every day, being able to take care of the $60 million complex we have here,” Gray said, ticking off a list of positive attributes that the Brewers are bringing out in him. “Appreciate the fact that we have the opportunity to play baseball every day. You wake up and eat, you get to swing the bat every day and just learning how to take that in and embrace it.

“That actually helps me out every day because it gets me to understand that once again I’m playing for something bigger, especially since I’m making my career to be meaningful not only to me but when we get to affiliates down the road we’ll be playing in front of kids, we’ll be playing in front of people and for the fans . . . If you learn how to hold yourself accountable, which the Brewers are teaching us here, you will basically put yourself off as a better person, overall.”

Playing in front of fans is not something that Gray has been able to do in his pro career since Arizona League games and especially extended spring training games draw very few spectators with the exception of teammates and a handful of pro scouts. This has been quite an adjustment for Gray, whose high school team would regularly pack its stadium for his home games. But playing in relative seclusion on the backfields of Arizona has been a good learning experience.

“I was used to having that adrenaline go when I was playing in front of people,” Gray said. “Then, when I got here, as a player you’ve got to create your own adrenaline. You’ve got to create your own want to go full speed every day. That’s going to be a big thing to help me out in the future because being able to have your own fuel is going to help you out as a player.”

With that said, Gray can’t wait to move on to one of the Brewers’ affiliates, where his outgoing personality and style of play will likely make him a fan favorite from Opening Day on. He’ll most likely be heading to Colorado Springs next month to play for the Brewers’ new Pioneer League affiliate, newly branded as the Rocky Mountain Vibes.

When reminded of the fact that the approximately 6,000 feet altitude in Colorado Springs will result in balls flying high and far, Gray smiled while presenting both sides of the equation.

“I’m very looking forward to it from an offensive standpoint,” Gray said. “Defensively, there may be days that I might have to turn into a track meet. I just have to be ready for it. From an offensive standpoint, we’re all looking forward to that. I hear that balls fly there.”

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