Rox still see Gray's future in rotation, not 'pen

September 27th, 2020

An idea that the observing and chattering classes have kicked around has also been discussed by the Rockies. How about right-handed starter Jon Gray converting to relief and developing into a closer?

Don’t plan on it just yet. It’s still more a social-media debate among learned baseball folk than anything that Colorado manager Bud Black is considering beyond some office chatter.

There are some things to consider.

Gray, who had a 6.69 ERA in eight starts before being shut down due to a right shoulder injury, is a strike-thrower. His 62.6 percent first-strike rate is 2 percent above MLB average. And shorter stints could, theoretically, bring his average four-seam velocity into the 97 mph range. Plus, he's struggled deeper into games, posting a 7.36 ERA in the sixth inning this season.

But it’s hard to hang any decision on 2020. Gray’s starts swung wildly between excellent and rough, and his velocity for most starts was below the 96 mph range it was at in the past. The inconsistencies could be explained by his injured shoulder.

In 2019, when Gray had a 3.84 ERA in 26 games (25 starts), his ERA climbed in the sixth (5.60) and seventh (5.87) innings, but his consistency improved as the year progressed. He had a 3.64 ERA in seven starts after the All-Star break.

So, could the Rockies convert Gray to relief the way the Royals did it with right-hander Wade Davis, who went on to have relief success for them, the Cubs and the Rockies?

“We’ve talked about that a little bit, too,” Black said. “It’s so hard to find quality starting pitching in this day and age. Jon has the physical nature to be able to throw 200-plus innings, to make 32, 33, 34 starts in a regular season, to hold his stuff. He has the weapons to get through a lineup and pitch into the sixth and seventh innings. Jon has done a nice job in his first five years in the big leagues of showing that, and that’s hard to replace.”

For now, the Rockies believe the key to Gray pitching deeper is developing his changeup. He rarely used it in 2019 and intended to use it more in ’20. By his last start on Sept. 1 -- when he yielded seven runs on nine hits over 2 2/3 innings in a 23-5 loss to the Giants -- he was nowhere near his usual velocity and had no life on his slider, which is often his best pitch.

Black said Gray and right-hander Germán Márquez will be working on their changeups over the offseason. Righty Antonio Senzatela and lefty Kyle Freeland each added an offspeed pitch and flourished in 2020.

While the Rockies' bullpen has had some issues, Daniel Bard handled the closer's role well after taking it over in August. There is no compulsion to replace Bard with Gray, or to even have Gray sitting with Bard in the bullpen awaiting a call.

“I don't know whether you can go find a top-of-the-line closer -- we found Greg Holland [in 2017] and we signed Wade Davis [in ‘18],” Black said. “Both those guys were instrumental in our years that we went to the playoffs. So I don't know just yet about that.

“It's probably safe to say, from my perspective, that Jon is much more valuable in the rotation.”