DENVER -- Rockies right-hander Jon Gray is driven to be great. He talks about becoming for the Rockies what Clayton Kershaw is for the Dodgers -- that No. 1 starter who takes the mound and allows his teammates take a deep breath and relax.Gray has the ability to be just
DENVER -- Rockies right-hander Jon Gray is driven to be great. He talks about becoming for the Rockies what Clayton Kershaw is for the Dodgers -- that No. 1 starter who takes the mound and allows his teammates take a deep breath and relax.
Gray has the ability to be just that. But it takes time.
Instant success that is sustained over a lengthy career is rare for starting pitchers. And in his second big league season, Gray gets it. There are frustrations, but they are merely detours that he and others before him have navigated.
Or as Rockies manager Bud Black, a former big league pitcher, puts it: "Patience has to take place. It's about understanding your stuff."
It's dealing with detours along the way.
After Gray's junior year at the University of Oklahoma, he was honored as the National Pitcher of the Year. Then he was selected third overall in the 2013 Draft by the Rockies, immediately after the Cubs selected Kristopher Bryant, and signed for a $4.8 million bonus.
Twenty-six months later, Gray was in the big leagues.
And the learning process began. Gray was winless in nine starts the final two months of 2015. Forty-five starts into his big league career, he is 13-13 with a 4.97 ERA. Both Gray and the Rockies are more confident than ever that Colorado sees is his ability to compete at Coors Field, where he is 9-3 (and the team is 10-5).
"He is still settling into a comfortable routine," said Black. "The big thing is the confidence boost as he moves forward."
Long-term success takes time. It's apparent among active pitchers.
Consider the five starting pitchers who have won the most games in the past decade, averaging more than 13 wins a season.
• Kershaw's career line is 141-62 with a 2.35 ERA. Fifty-one starts into his big league career, however, he was 13-13 with a 3.40 ERA for the Dodgers.
• Zack Greinke is 145-69 with a 3.10 ERA since the start of the 2008 season, but in his first 71 starts (2004-07) he was 16-34 with a 4.76 ERA.
• Adam Wainwright spent his rookie season (2006) in the bullpen with the Cardinals, then he went 14-12 with a 3.70 ERA in 21 starts in 2007. Since then, he is 129-68 with a 3.21 ERA despite spending a season on the disabled list.
• Roy Halladay, who retired after the 2013 season, was 18-17 with a 4.95 ERA from 1998-2001, which included a return trip to the Class A level in the Minor Leagues. In his final 12 big league seasons, he was 185-88 with a 3.17 ERA.
• Max Scherzer was 21-26 with a 3.75 ERA in his first three big league seasons, but he is 115-48 with a 3.18 ERA since.
"It is about making the adjustments to that next level," said Black.
There are challenges like Gray faced this season. He was the Rockies' Opening Day starter, but he was winless in his first three starts, finally going on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his left foot that he suffered in Spring Training.
Gray won his first two starts after being activated, but last weekend against the Mets, he was charged with eight earned runs in only two innings. He was back on Wednesday, and he dominated the Padres for five innings, gave up four runs in his sixth and final innings, but he was awarded the win in Colorado's 18-4 victory against San Diego.
"One of the toughest parts of pitching is the mind game," said Gray.
And there is the learning process. Gray arrived in pro ball with a lights-out slider and a dominating fastball. As he worked his way to the big leagues, the realization set in that it takes more than two pitches to be an elite pitcher. Gray has added a curveball and a changeup, both of which have been impressive, but both of which need to become more a part of the routine.
"This isn't something new," said Black. "Look at [Greg] Maddux, [John] Smoltz and [Tom] Glavine. There are bumps in the road along the way."
The tough, however, weather that storm and improve. As the late Hal Keller was wont to say, "I can't tell you how good someone can be until I see how bad they can be."
Translation: The good players are the ones who see adversity as a challenge and embrace the chance to get better.
Even Hall of Fame-caliber pitchers have their struggles early.
Consider the five starting pitchers inducted into Cooperstown in the past decade:
• Randy Johnson was 49-48 with a 3.95 ERA his first five seasons in the big leagues, but he went 254-118 with a 2.59 ERA the next 17.
• Pedro Martinez was a reliever his first two years with the Dodgers. Manager Tommy Lasorda was convinced he was too frail to be a durable starter, a big part of the decision to trade Martinez, instead of Pedro Astacio, to the Expos for Delino DeShields.
• Smoltz was 2-7 with a 5.48 ERA in 1988, but he went 211-48 with a 3.29 ERA and 154 saves the next 20 years, the only pitcher to have more than 150 saves and 150 wins in his career.
• Glavine was 9-23 with a 4.76 ERA his first two seasons with the Braves, but he went 296-180 with a 3.46 ERA after that.
• And Maddux went from 8-18 with a 5.59 ERA his first two years with the Cubs to 347-209 with a 3.06 ERA the rest of the way on his path to Cooperstown.
"There is a learning curve," said Black.
Gray is showing signs of being a quick learner.
Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com.