SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies drafted pitcher Jon Gray third overall out of Oklahoma in 2013, then sent him to school.For two years, they gradually remade a delivery that had him dominating collegiate hitters into one they believe will work versus pros. The results during a nine-start Major League apprenticeship
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Rockies drafted pitcher Jon Gray third overall out of Oklahoma in 2013, then sent him to school.
For two years, they gradually remade a delivery that had him dominating collegiate hitters into one they believe will work versus pros. The results during a nine-start Major League apprenticeship last season were mixed at best -- 0-2, 5.53 ERA, with a 2.70 road ERA.
But most important, Gray was an earnest student who gave himself over to the new methods.
Now, school is out. Gray, 24, hopes to grab the starting rotation job that's there for the taking and become the dominant right-hander the club envisioned.
"Everyone I've worked with has been really great," Gray said. "I'm not saying I'm putting away the whole process of getting better at pitching. But I'm ready to take the leash off and get after it."
Could Friday's start of official Spring Training for Rockies pitchers and catchers be a new beginning for Colorado?
Drafting or signing -- and developing -- is a must for the Rockies, given their middling payroll and their well-chronicled difficulty in attracting free agents. But recent success has been minimal.
The current Rockies have Gray and righty Chad Bettis, who broke through last year after an ill-fated bullpen experiment the previous season, as projected starters, although lefty Tyler Matzek and righty Eddie Butler have a shot after forgettable 2015 results. Behind them are prospects.
Otherwise, the Orioles' Ubaldo Jimenez is the only Rockies-developed starter on a Major League contract today. Jhoulys Chacin, whom the Rockies released last spring, is with the Braves on a Minor League deal.
Gray, the Rockies' first pick since the front office hired longtime Major League pitching coach and personnel man Mark Wiley as director of pitching operations, can do much to rehabilitate the Rockies' reputation with starters. Success could be immediate. Or -- as with Bettis, who remade his delivery before last season -- it may require patience.
"You try not to put any timetable on young pitchers because they all improve at different rates, but there are certain things you can only learn in the big leagues and he's learning them," Wiley said. "He had a really good education last year.
"It's always good to have a good example. But the pitcher himself determines whether he becomes an example or not."
Gray's windup doesn't resemble what it was in college. Back then, he extended his left heel toward first base, then stepped back and rocked in that direction. The resulting leg swing created momentum that transferred into velocity. He regularly topped 100 mph with his fastball. But Wiley said the motion had to change to give Gray consistent "balance, rhythm, timing and direction -- our big four."
Gray said, "At that [collegiate] level I could get away with it. At this level I can't, because guys could tell through my delivery what pitch was coming. They could pick it up. My glove would tell them slider or fastball."
Dave Burba and Darryl Scott, Gray's coaches in the Minors, gradually quieted his motion by shortening the stagger of the left foot. After he debuted in the Majors, Rockies coaches Steve Foster and Darren Holmes shortened it more.
Holmes also moved Gray's right foot from the first-base side of the rubber to the third-base side, which made him more intimidating to righty batters. And the velocity, which dropped as he incorporated the changes, is returning.
"My season in Tulsa [Double-A in 2014] I was down to 92-94 for a while," he said. "Last year, I was back up to 97-98. This year even feels better than last year. It's a gradual climb, but I feel like I'm going to get back to triple digits. But I'm locating better."
During the big league apprenticeship, he was allowed to go beyond five innings just once -- a one-run, one-hit, five-strikeout dazzler in six innings against the Mets at Citi Field. He reached his innings limit during a clunker of a final start, against the Pirates (nine hits, five runs in 4 2/3 innings) at home on Sept. 21.
"We saw flashes of brilliance from him last season -- that's the next step for every young player, to be able to do it time and time again," said Rockies manager Walt Weiss, who said the sample size at home (8.27 ERA in 20 2/3 innings) was too small to produce red flags.
Gray also can prove that a sinker-slider, grounder-oriented style is not the only way to succeed in Coors Field's climate, which can turn fly balls into homers. Gray's fastball works up and arm side -- with his changeup diving to the same side. This year he has added a curveball -- one many have been talked out of throwing in a Denver atmosphere unfriendly to breaking pitches -- for the glove side.
"A lot of people really don't agree with pitching up in the zone at Coors, but I do a lot of that," Gray said. "Anything in the 90s is hard enough to hit if it's located well. And this curveball, I know that if it pops up and it's real slow, it probably won't work very well. But I've been focusing on making it look like a fastball in the zone. I'm not going to give it a chance to hang up."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and** like his Facebook page**.