When you are the 3rd overall pick of any draft in any sport, expectations will be quite high for you. Jon Gray is a good pitcher, but one can’t help feel that he is somewhat of a disappointment for the Rockies and their fans. Gray was supposed to be the eventual ace the Rockies have been looking for since Coors Field opened and maybe the game that most represents his tenure with Colorado was his one playoff appearance where he got torched by the Diamondbacks to the tune of 7 hits and 4 earned runs, effectively ending the Rockies season by the time he was lifted after one and a third innings in the 2017 Wild Card game. Gray had gone 10-4 during the regular season and in his second “full” season was starting to prove the Rockies right for taking him with their first pick in 2013. Rockies fans felt pretty good about Gray starting the Wild Card game but that feeling faded to disappointment rather quickly. Gray started the game by giving up a pair of singles followed by a 3 run homer to the first 3 batters he faced in a game the Rockies lost 11-8, so while it wasn’t all his fault that Colorado’s players watched the rest of the playoffs from their couches, he was supposed to be the ace and he didn’t pitch like one when the chips were down.
Flash forward to the 2020 pre-season and the Rockies have seen 114 starts from the “Gray Ghost” who is now 28. 2019 was a nice looking year for Gray who crafted a 3.84 ERA, but in reality maintained almost exactly the same FIP he had posted (4.06 in 2019 to 4.08 in 2018) in 2018 when his ERA was 5.12. FIP is a version of ERA that removes fielding from the equation and looks at what a pitcher’s ERA would be if it were based only on things the pitcher can control like walks, home runs, strike outs and hit batters. A big discrepancy between FIP and ERA in either direction can indicate luck, or lack thereof, on the pitcher’s part. In 2018 Gray was probably unlucky and in 2019 he was perhaps a bit lucky. Part of the smaller discrepancy between ERA and FIP in 2019 was likely due to his much better left on base percentage, along with an increase in his ground ball rate. It is easier to prevent home runs when you make the batter pound the ball into the dirt – this isn’t Skee Ball after all. Gray saw his highest strand rate ever as 75.9% (average is in the 70-72% range) of the runners Gray saw were left on base as he trudged toward the dugout at the end of an inning. Gray was solid if unspectacular and that is the problem. The Rockies expected spectacular and he just hasn’t delivered on that yet. At 28 how long do you wait until you decide to drop the “yet” and just accept what he is? If you are the Rockies, it is possible that what he is now just isn’t enough, and this offseason there is talk of the Rockies, who are always looking for starting pitchers who can survive the rigors of Coors Field home games, shopping Gray around. Is this the beginning of a rebuild or are the Rockies folding on Gray? To frame this a bit more clearly, let’s look at what Gray is right now and what his numbers indicate for the future.
Gray seems to be healthy if you look at his velocity, which is higher than ever with an average fastball at 96.1 MPH last season. Okay, so he broke his foot and missed time again last year, but his arm seems to be fine. Gray brought the cheese slightly less often than his career rate – a bit above half the time – while mixing in his slider, curveball, and change at roughly the same rate as his career numbers would indicate. One interesting (in a bad way) number from 2019 was his hard hit rate which was 43.6 percent placing him in the 96th percentile (again, in the bad way) in the league for that dubious stat. Part of what kept his home run rate down was the average launch angle he allowed of 7.5 degrees. There’s that previously mentioned improved ground ball rate helping him survive.
What else do we know about Jon Gray? In each of the last three seasons he has had a lower ERA in home games than in road games. In 2019 it was a difference of .76 of a run. That is a puzzling split because Gray isn’t the most prolific inducer of the ground ball – on his staff even – which might have accounted for his success in Coors Field. Nor is he the guy with the highest strikeout rate on the Rockies. Home cooking? Whatever is causing him to produce a better ERA at home, he has repeated it for 3 years now. Gray also has some pretty pronounced platoon splits in the last two seasons including 2018 where he posted a 3.87 ERA against righties and a 6.36 ERA against lefties. 2019 wasn’t quite as dramatic – 3.01 against righties and 4.80 against lefties – but it seems that Gray doesn’t have a great approach when he faces a lefty heavy lineup like the Dodgers, or perhaps it is his pitch mix. He still gets K’s but he gives up more hits and walks a lot of lefties. Speaking of his pitch mix, let’s speak of his pitch mix!
Gray featured 5 pitches in 2019, but he so rarely threw the 2-seam fastball (1.2% vs. lefties and 1.3% versus righties) that it is hardly worth mentioning. Versus righties, Gray worked mostly with the 4-seam fastball (47.8%), the slider (38.2%), and the curve (10.5%). Against lefties his approach changed quite a bit throwing the 4-seamer 54.6% of the time, dropping the slider down to 11.7%, almost ditching the curve completely (3.6%) and replacing it with the change (28.9%). What is interesting to note with a pitcher like Gray, who throws his fastball with alacrity, is that the pitch wasn’t all that effective in sending hitters back to the dugout. Against both lefties and righties, hitters’ weighted on-base percentage (wOBA) against him is over .400 (.418 against lefties and .400 against righties). wOBA should be viewed on a similar scale as on-base percentage where anything over .400 is excellent for a hitter so lefties and righties both seem to feast on his fastball. Against lefties, by far his most effective pitches were the slider and change that he worked for wOBA’s of .210 and .228 respectively. Against righties, his two best pitches were the curveball and slider – .172 and .221 wOBA’s respectively. So what does that tell us? It is hard to know what would happen if he threw a lot more sliders and curveballs to righties and sliders and changeups to lefties using the fastball much less and more just to set up the other pitches. It seems like it would be worth a try and I would bet his patterns would change if he went to another team in a trade as the pitching coach tried to get the most out of Gray’s abilities.
So what is Jon Gray? He hasn’t shown himself to be a horse that you can give the ball to every 5th day and count on him working deep into the game – except last year it looked like he would finally get to 200 innings until he broke his foot. He was definitely on pace to best his career high in innings pitched for the second season in a row and he averaged about 6 innings a start. He still strikes out slightly more than a batter an inning and walks 3 per 9 innings, so that’s a quite solid 3 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio. Jon Gray may not be an ace but unless someone is willing to dramatically overpay for him, it seems that trading him would cost the Rockies their best number 3 starter ever who is poised to throw 200 innings in 2020 which would be especially difficult to replace in Denver where no pitcher in his right mind would sign as a free agent. So Gray isn’t an ace – so what? How many pitchers develop into aces? Not many. How many pitchers can regularly succeed in Coors Field and give 150+ innings and 25+ starts a season which Gray has done each of the last two seasons averaging 28.5 starts? Again, not many. So the Rockies need to pretend they just received Gray in a trade and look at him for what he is instead of viewing him as a failed ace. He is a strong number 3 in a world where that is something not to be sneezed at. The Gray Ghost needs to ride again in Coors Field in 2020!