Gray determined to bounce back from 2018

'I wasn't really having fun at all,' Rockies righty says

November 14th, 2018

DENVER -- After a season in which he often was lost, Rockies right-hander went to the wilderness of his father's property in western Arkansas to lose himself. He gazed at bright stars and fished with his wife, Jacklyn. The closest he came to baseball was swatting a pinata on his Nov. 5 birthday.

"It was good for my soul," Gray said after arriving via skateboard for an interview in a Denver coffee shop on Tuesday. "That seclusion feeling, I love it."

Now, however, Gray must find what he lost in 2018. The Rockies' Opening Day starter of the last two seasons, Gray sustained two burning, motivating slights -- an option to Triple-A Albuquerque at the end of May, and being left off the roster for the National League Division Series against the Brewers. The further insult was a narrative that he struggles in big games.

Gray's 2017 season ended with a 1 1/3-inning, four-run debacle in the NL Wild Card Game loss to the D-backs. He bookended '18 by lasting just four-plus innings on Opening Day at Arizona, and being tagged for five runs and seven hits in two innings against the Nationals at home on Sept. 29 -- the only loss in the Rockies' last 10 scheduled games. The loss forced Colorado into an NL West tiebreaker with the Dodgers, and it kept the Rockies from the first division crown in their 26-season history.

"It made me hate baseball a lot last year," Gray said. "I wasn't really having fun at all. I'm ready to be a part of things. I feel I missed out on too much."

After going 10-4 with a 3.67 ERA in 20 starts during a 2017 season that helped justify the Rockies selecting him third overall in '13 out of the University of Oklahoma, Gray went 12-9 with a 5.12 ERA and a 93 ERA+ (100 is league average) in '18.

On Tuesday, Gray outlined a plan to return from his end-of-season exclusion to what he believes is his rightful place at the top of the Rockies' rotation.

Regain strength

Tuesday was Gray's second workout at Denver's Landow Performance, owned by Denver Broncos strength and conditioning coach Loren Landow.

Gray hypothesizes that he hasn't felt as strong or as athletic since April 13, 2017, when he sustained a left foot stress fracture in a game against the Giants. He returned to finish the season strong, but he couldn't lift with his legs the rest of the year. The landing foot was a problem all of '18.

Because of strength and timing issues, Gray saw fluctuations all season in the velocity of both his fastball and his slider.





His spin rates, which create swings and misses at higher levels, were clearly down from past seasons.





But his first workouts left him excited that his strength and athletic ability are on the way back.

"I really felt like today moving around, I felt really good with my body," he said. "I felt like a baseball player today. It's awesome."

Correct last season's weight loss from 235 to 215

Gray eats little on game days. Fueled only with a protein shake, a banana and Goldfish crackers, he fanned 16 Padres on Sept. 17, 2016. But not eating enough caught up with him in '18.

"I was having a hard time eating, working with the chef with the Rockies, we got these rice and chicken bowls that I could kind of stomach down on start days," he said. "We had some shakes and some carb drinks.

"But it was hard to maintain your weight if every five days you can't eat. So it's something I have to change."

Follow Ottavino's lead

After a rough 2017, -- a reliever who is now a free agent -- had a career year in '18 with the Rockies after going to Driveline Baseball, a high-tech training and analysis facility in Kent, Wash. Gray, along with Rockies relievers and Jake McGee, contacted Driveline after the season. Gray has an appointment in January.

"It can be useful if something is really wrong," Gray said. "But if I'm just feeling spin off my hand, I don't need to look at it. If it feels right, I know it's right. But to get to that point, I think it's very useful. It's something I'm going to try."

Settle on his identity

Gray never felt himself last season while trying what he described as well-meaning suggestions from his coaches. The strength workouts and the Driveline visit are his ways of determining who he is and will be next year.

"I know that when I am right, pitching becomes fun. … I almost feel like it's a joke, because I can tell people what's coming and they can't hit it," Gray said. "It's tough to explain -- but when you get in that groove like that, it's a dance."