Jon Gray Keeps Adding Pitches

There’s a bad joke that we throw around when an older player signs — that he brings with him veteran presents. In the modern clubhouse, though, it’s unclear how much this sort of thing matters. There’s a lot of putting your head down and working on your craft — or keeping your nose out of other players’ business, at least. But then you get the odd story here or there where a veteran comes in and helps a young man develop, and you wonder if the jokes are misplaced.

Like this story about Jon Gray. He was a man with a fastball and a slider, searching for something that would expand his arsenal. The curve was promising, but less effective in Colorado. “Then I talked to [Adam] Ottavino about the slider,” the 24-year-old Rockies starter told me earlier this year, “and I started manipulating it differently in different situations.” Look at that: tangible veteran presents, from a player who just last year told us about his ability to alter his slider to battle lefties.

I recently got to check back in with Gray about that slider manipulation. He was fresh off a rejuvenating bullpen session in San Francisco and had even better feelings about his changeup. And his curve. Now we look up and, in his last start, on Wednesday against the Orioles, he actually used both his curve and change 10% of the time… and it was the third time he’d done so all season. Looks like Gray has found a few more pitches that he trusts.

First was the slider, after Ottavino’s intervention. “I’m behind the ball more for the cutter movement,” Gray said of discovering a new way to throw his slider. “I want to throw both kinds of sliders to lefties and righties, though.” That slider has definitely gotten harder against lefties, but he’s done a decent job of using both kinds to batters of both hands. Here’s a map of his sliders with handedness, movement and velocity depicted.

It’s maybe not as distinct as the separation between the two breaking balls Jose Fernandez throws, but Gray just got here.

Gray expressed some frustration with Coors Field, which is known to kill curveball movement, but felt like he was starting to trust the curve more. That was July 5th. Before that day, he averaged 8% curve usage; since that day, he’s doubled that to 16% usage. That’s especially impressive given how drastic the curveball gets hit by that Coors effect. Check out all the “flattest” points on his curve movement. Guess which park.

Brooksbaseball-Chart-52

The Rox righty also talked that day of wanting the curve to “come out and go down instead of up and down.” Using release point data to judge curveballs is a little iffy given the fact that the measurement comes after the true point of release and is instead extrapolated back to release from a point a few feet into the ball’s flight. Still, he’s made progress in making the ball look like it’s coming out lower.

Brooksbaseball-Chart-53

That leaves the changeup, which Gray has been using more as the season has progressed. Particularly against righties. “I’m throwing that change as hard as possible, 90 mph, so that it looks like a fastball down the middle,” he said. “Low and away to lefties, or low and in to righties, doesn’t matter.” Check all the boxes and give him an A for effort, because Gray’s change has gotten slightly harder, he’s using it more, the vertical movement has become more consistent, and he’s using it more against righties in particular (below).

Brooksbaseball-Chart-54

Yeah, an ERA near four doesn’t make you an ace. But it’s a tough park that Gray has to call home, and he started the year with two pitches. Sure, the fastball has top-10 velocity and the slider top-10 raw whiffs, but that’s still only two pitches. Now he’s sporting a top-25 strikeout minus walk rate, and — probably more important for his long-term future — five pitches that he trusts, no matter if he’s facing a lefty or a righty.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

newest oldest most voted
jdbolick
Member

Thanks for the column. Gray is making some nice strides and looks like someone who can front that rotation for years to come.