Gray making adjustments after recent struggles

Right-hander, coaching staff pinpointing mechanical issues; Black comments on bullpen's issues

June 3rd, 2018

DENVER -- The Rockies know that the numbers attached to right-handed pitcher 's four-start slump -- including a 9.33 ERA and .360 batting average against -- serve no purpose other than to make heads spin. Instead, they've boiled the mess down to a simple principle: Improvement rests in Gray's hands.

Gray has been the Rockies' No. 1 starter for the last two seasons, so his struggles have been understandably alarming. But the test facing Gray, as well as manager Bud Black and pitching coaches Steve Foster and Darren Holmes, is to ignore the justified fan angst, do the extensive video and statistical analysis, and present cool-headed coaching points. Their diagnosis is that Gray's spotty fastball location means his slider -- his best put-away pitch -- is either not coming into play, or hitters are able to sit on it. So the key is improving the fastball.

And it's back to his hands at the start of the motion.

"They said one thing … get the ball out of the glove," said Gray, who had a bullpen session Friday and another Sunday morning in preparation for his next start, Wednesday at Cincinnati. "We make it very simple. So we don't think about too much. When you think about too much, things get out of whack. Getting it out creates a downhill fastball, because my arm isn't dragging behind. I'm trying to stay on top of the ball and throw hard downhill."

If Gray's hand separation -- the moment he pulls the ball out of the glove -- occurs when he is over the rubber and his momentum isn't fully toward the plate, his arm and body are in sync. Lately, however, the body is going forward while the hands separate, and his arm is in a desperate game of catch-up.

If it seems elementary, that's the point.

A 5-6 record and 5.68 ERA aren't pleasing numbers. But 76 strikeouts in 65 innings an a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio (12th in the National League) point to a tuneup, not an overhaul.

"It's keeping the noise out, focusing on the small things," Foster said. "Small things matter. If you get caught up in the rest in the middle of the season when the results haven't been finalized, you find yourself in an infinite circle."

Even under the pressure of a Major League season, the Rockies' coaching methods with the 26-year-old Gray haven't changed much since his selection at third overall out of the University of Oklahoma in the 2013 Draft. First was taming a wild delivery that worked against college hitters. Between reaching the Majors in 2015 and last season, Holmes taught Gray a curveball, which he hadn't thrown in his life.

Gray closed out last season with 13 consecutive starts of no more than three earned runs allowed, while spearheading the Rockies' first postseason trip since 2009. However, Gray had missed time earlier in the season with a stress fracture in his left foot, which lands at the end of his windup. To compensate, he didn't land as hard. Earlier this year, his foot was landing pointing toward the left side, which was costing him action on his slider.

Before the fastball problems cropped up, Gray's one coaching point was to land straight. Sometimes, as he takes the mound for games, Gray draws a line toward the plate with his foot.

"I see a lot of positives with my breaking ball -- I've gotten that to where I want it, finally," he said. "But now it's just the fastball. I have everything I need to go get it. I just need to go do it."

The issue of not pulling the ball out of the glove quickly enough actually was addressed at the start of 2016 in the Minors.

"We're retracing things that we've already worked on with him in the past," Foster said. "It's like any athlete at the elite level, it's easy to get away from the foundational truths of what you do. What is it that makes you great? What makes Jon Gray great is his ability to locate with precision, his ability to get a strikeout when he needs it, to keep his walks low. So we've gone back to the foundational truths, and one of them is separation over the rubber, which is critical."

To keep his own mind from racing, Gray said he is taking solace in the team's solid start and buying into the approach that addressing the fundamentals will lead to better results. But he also admits it can be difficult.

"You don't want to become results-oriented, but they kind of matter right now," Gray said. "So I need to focus on some things right now and, no matter what, compete."

Black pulling bullpen through tough time

For two consecutive nights, the Rockies' bullpen has crumbled to the Dodgers, who won 11-8 on Friday night and 12-4 on Saturday night. Seven pitchers over the two nights have given up a combined 11 hits and 14 runs over 6 1/3 innings pitched.

What's not working? Rockies manager Bud Black says it's simple.

"They're not making good pitches," Black said before Sunday's finale against the Dodgers. "If you look at the quality of pitches that we're making, it's just not up to standard. The ball-strike ratio is not good. Too many deep counts, a few walks, just not making quality pitches that these fellas are capable of making."

Earlier in the season, the pitching was pulling the weight of winning games. Now, it's the Rockies' bats. Through eight games on the homestand, Colorado is hitting .325 with a .517 slugging percentage and averaging 6.4 runs per game.