New mental approach benefiting Gray
Rox prospect has improved since visualizing pitches, cutting negative self-talk
DENVER -- The Rockies envisioned a pitcher with an overpowering fastball and baffling secondary pitches when they drafted right-hander Jon Gray third overall out of Oklahoma in 2013.
Now that Gray, 23, is making that happen, everyone's dream may be realized soon. Two calendar years and much education since being selected one pick behind power-hitting Cubs rookie Kris Bryant, Gray is heating up at Triple-A Albuquerque and is approaching Major League readiness.
Gray struggled in his first four starts this year to the tune of a 10.70 ERA and 16.3 hits per nine innings. But in his last six starts, Gray has a 2.78 ERA and 21 strikeouts against nine walks in 35 2/3 innings.
Before finding success, Gray said he began visualizing it. Discussions with Albuquerque manager Glenallen Hill, pitching coach Darryl Scott and Rockies peak performance coordinator Andy McKay helped put Gray in a better mental position, and the physical improvements followed.
"I'm trying to make sure of the pitch I was throwing before I threw it, that, 'I'm going to execute that pitch, and this pitch is going to get the hitter out,'" Gray said. "I visualize it before I throw it. That way, there are no negative thoughts that can get in the way."
In college, Gray dominated with a fastball that often reached 100 mph. His velocity dipped last year, his first full pro season, pitching once every five or six days. But now Gray fires in the 93-97 mph range, and he feels more velocity is coming. But Colorado's top prospect is learning that dealing with an inevitable negative result against a professional hitter is more important than throwing harder.
"When things are rolling and ... three or four ground balls get through, or when you throw a good pitch and he hits one in the gap, before, it was, 'Why? I made a good pitch, and he hit that? Does my ball look flat? Is my stuff easy to see?'" Gray said. "Once you get out of your own head, your ability can come out."
Gray also adjusted his slider by keeping his fingers higher on the ball rather than to the side -- a flaw that led to loopy action over the plate, rather than the intended downward bite. He said he is working on a more consistent changeup, and he realizes he can enhance his chances at big league success by improving fundamentals such as bat handling and fielding.
While manager Walt Weiss said he is "hearing good things about Jon," there is no buzz in the organization that a promotion is imminent. Gray is enjoying outings like his last one -- seven scoreless innings with four hits, five strikeouts and two walks Sunday against Omaha.
"I felt in control all the time, that I could throw any pitch in any count -- power and finesse at the same time," Gray said. "Whether I was behind guys or ahead, I felt I was getting stronger as the game went on. That's what makes pitching fun for me."