SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Maybe it is in the mane.Late last season, a baseball executive was discussing the transformation of Rockies right-hander Jon Gray from a tentative late-season callup in 2015 to a strikeout threat in '16. As the blond locks grew, he checked off areas of pitching growth. By the
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Maybe it is in the mane.
Late last season, a baseball executive was discussing the transformation of Rockies right-hander Jon Gray from a tentative late-season callup in 2015 to a strikeout threat in '16. As the blond locks grew, he checked off areas of pitching growth. By the time he fanned a Coors Field-record 16 on Sept. 17 in a shutout of the Padres, his hair was long enough to whip as wildly as opponents swung.
"I guess you have to have confidence to pitch with hair like that," the longtime baseball observer said.
Gray, who will get a trim for a charity donation in a month or so but has no plans to go crew cut, will let his hair hang down once again on Monday, when he makes his first Opening Day start against the Brewers at Miller Park.
"He's intimidating," Rockies catcher Tony Wolters said. "He's a little lion out there. You can see him bobbing his head when he's feeling good. It freaks out the hitter. I get excited."
Gray has more than just a fear-inducing look. At an imposing 6-foot-4 with a fastball that averaged 95 mph last season and a put-away slider, Gray set a Rockies rookie record with 185 strikeouts last season. Now a curve he learned last year became a strikeout pitch this spring. So the 25-year-old can overpower hitters and make them look bad.
Just imagine if Gray were actually mean.
"When I go out and pitch, I don't, I'm not myself," Gray said. "I'm not Jon, I guess, when I'm going out there. I'm someone else. An angry individual, I guess.
"I love to pretend. Every five days, I get to be somebody else."
Gray would have a hard time finding reason to be angry. On Monday, he will become the fourth-youngest pitcher to start an Opening Day in club history -- behind David Nied (1993) and Jason Jennings (2003), both 24, and Jhoulys Chacin ('13), who was a couple months younger than Gray now.
At the end of each year, Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich and the staff have exit interviews, where they assign an area of improvement. Pitching coach Steve Foster and Bridich were light on specifics and heavy on wanting Gray to pitch with belief that he can dominate.
"He started believing, 'I can overpower guys. I don't have to tickle the zone. I can attack the zone,'" Foster said. "You started seeing it last year. The fans started seeing it. I certainly started seeing the belief on the mound."
Now Gray can spread some of that confidence to the rest of a young rotation. It includes another second-year man in Tyler Anderson and 89-start veteran Tyler Chatwood, with three rookies in line for two spots -- righty German Marquez, who appeared in six Major League games (three starts) last season, and two others who would be making their debuts in lefty Kyle Freeland and righty Antonio Senzatela.
"I've done it before," Gray said. "I've hit about every bump in the road there is, and I'm always finding ways to get past it to move on. I know these guys are going to do the same exact thing."
On Opening Day, Gray's hair will be flowing. More importantly, so will his confidence and excitement.
"It's exciting," Gray said. "It's the best place to compete. We're all competitive people. That's exactly where we want to be right there, right in the middle of that storm. I'm just waiting for that day."
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and** like his Facebook page**.