JON GRAY HAS POTENTIAL TO BE ACE OF ROCKIES
Right-hander has potential to be Rockies’ ace, but he isn’t there yet
PHOENIX» Jon Gray looks like an ace straight out of central casting. The sturdy Rockies right-hander stands 6-foot-5, weighs 230 pounds, consistently unleashes a 96 mph fastball and throws a slider that cuts the heart out of hitters.
Friday night at Chase Field, Gray returned to the mound after recovering from a stress fracture in his left foot that cost him 77 big-league days. Gray struck out 10 Arizona hitters over six innings and helped halt the Rockies’ eight-game losing streak.
He used his trusty slider to whiff Diamondbacks MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt three times and drew praise from Arizona manager Torey Lovullo.
“I saw some down fastballs, bottom of the zone, good angle,” Lovullo said of Gray. “He was working the edges of the plate and his slider was more than efficient. Knowing that he was coming off the foot injury and it’s his first outing at this level after a long rehab, I though he did a pretty good job. He gave the Rockies exactly what they needed.”
But is Gray, at age 25, truly an ace? Is he the foundation of the franchise? Is he the type of pitcher the Rockies can truly count on to stop skids, beat the best teams in the National League and lead them to the promised land of postseason play?
The consensus is maybe, but he’s certainly not there yet.
“Jon, potentially, can be that guy,” said first-year Rockies manager Bud Black. “Everybody has their different criteria, but for me, passing the test of time is the most important factor for me to label a pitcher a true ace. So I think Jon has to prove that over time.
“The physical tools are there. The
delivery, the stuff, is there. I think Jon has stamina and durability, but Jon still has things to work on.”
Mark Wiley, the Rockies’ director of pitching operations, has been in professional baseball since he was 18 years old. He is 69 now. He was a big-league pitching coach for 17 seasons, including 1995-98 with Cleveland Indians teams that went to the playoffs four times and to the World Series twice. Wiley’s Indians had the lowest ERA in the American League in 1995 and 1996.
Wiley knows about pitching, so he knows the real thing when he sees it.
“An ace is an ace because he likes being on the big stage,” Wiley said. “You don’t think anybody is better than you. It’s not that you don’t respect other guys’ abilities, but you truly believe that you are better than that Hall of Fame hitter at the plate who’s facing you.
“You want to be there, in that moment. You want to take on that responsibility.”
Has Gray reached that summit yet?
“I think it will take time,” Wiley said. “I think there are certain elements that we can see about to happen, but they still have to happen. But I do think the building blocks are there. He’s a way more aggressive pitcher than he was when he first came up.”
Ask Gray about his status as a would-be ace and fire flashes in his eyes.
“That’s my whole objective,” he said. “That’s what I work for every day — to be an ace. I know the stuff is there, so now it’s how I put that stuff together and how well I show it on the field that matters.”
Oh, yes, “the stuff.” It’s the reason the Rockies selected Gray, from the University of Oklahoma, in the 2013 draft as the third overall pick. The Sooner from Shawnee arrived in the majors with his ex- plosive fastball and biting slider, and he has developed a good but still inconsistent curveball since joining the Rockies. His changeup remains a work in progress.
The slider is Gray’s specialty. It has a relatively sharp break, but what makes the pitch so wicked is that it arrives at the plate at 90 mph. Last season, according to Beyond the Box Score, batters hit only .174 against the slider, and whiffed at it on more than 43 percent of their swings, 11th-best in the major leagues.
“Jon Gray has electric stuff, he has energy and he has God-given ability,” said Rockies catcher Tony Wolters. “Guys want to play behind him. Plus, he takes his job super serious.”
Still, Gray’s overall numbers are far from great. Through 42 bigleague starts, he is 11-12 with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.34 WHIP (walks plus hits allowed per inning pitched). He is on a path similar to former Rockies right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez.
Over the first 51 games (50 starts) of his career, Jimenez was 16-16 with a 4.06 ERA through the 2008 season. Then he broke out in 2009 (the last time the Rockies made it to the playoffs), going 1512 with a 3.47 ERA and 198 strikeouts. He was even better in 2010, finishing 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA and setting a season franchise record with 214 strikeouts. He finished third in voting for the NL Cy Young Award that year.
Gray announced his arrival as a potential ace last season against San Diego at Coors Field. On Sept. 17, he pitched one of the most dominant games in team history as the Rockies blanked the Padres 8-0. Gray tossed a shutout and struck out a club-record 16 batters, also the most in Coors Field history.
“Jon was unbelievable,” all-star third baseman Nolan Arenado said after that game. “That’s probably the best pitching performance I’ve ever played behind. I didn’t even have to make any plays because he struck out everyone. But his intensity out there tonight was amazing. He was locked in from the first inning on. He just competed his butt off. We don’t see a lot of games like that here.”
Gray had an excellent spring training, fully aware that he had grown up a lot.
“I think spring training was a good reflection of where I’m at,” he said. “That’s how I wanted to carry myself. I didn’t really feel like I belonged the first year I was up. In the back of my mind I would be thinking, ‘Am I really this good? Or am I getting lucky?’
“That’s because I would have some rough games every now and then, and I’d feel like I was right back to where I started. Now I realize that’s part of learning. So I kicked the bad habit and got rid of those negative thoughts. Now, I’m back to loving baseball.”
The foot injury that sidelined Gray on April 13 was “incredibly frustrating,” he said, but now he’s ready to resume his quest.
“It was a big game. I had a big opportunity to have a good game and really try to turn things around for us,” Gray said Friday after Colorado’s 6-3 victory over the Diamondbacks. “All that stuff crossed my mind, but whenever I stepped over the line, I was thinking about pitch by pitch, trying to execute each one.
“Actually, I didn’t have very many butterflies at all. That’s starting to go away, which is pretty cool.”
Rockies starter Jon Gray returned Friday night from a foot injury, posting 10 strikeouts in a 6-3 victory over the Diamondbacks.
According to some within the organization, Jon Gray has “the stuff ” to become an ace.