Gray sharp in start, debuts 'new' slider

March 24th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- From the moment that Jon Gray joined the Rangers on Dec. 1, he was viewed as a potential top-of-the-rotation arm amidst a staff searching for a bona fide No. 1. In his club debut Thursday, he flashed that upside, complete with a brand-new slider.

Gray spun two innings against Oakland at Hohokam Stadium in the Rangers’ 5-3 win, compiling four strikeouts while allowing one run on four hits. All four punchouts came on the revamped slider, a creation that Gray and co-pitching coach Brendan Sagara developed prior to the lockout.

“It’s moving a lot more,” said Gray of his slider. “It’s got a lot more horizontal action on it. It probably moves double the amount my old one does. … This one kind of goes across the whole plate.”

Hitting even Gray’s “old” slider was no small task itself. Last season, when the right-hander deployed the pitch a career-high 38.1% of the time, batters were only able to hit .156 against it with a .300 slugging percentage. That increased usage came even while calling Coors Field home, a place notorious for taking some of the bend out of breaking pitches.

“I’m definitely getting a lot more break with it,” Gray said. “Still trying to make it off my fastball is going to be key.

“I think the changeup is going to be a really good mix-in -- and [the] curveball too -- but I think the bread and butter will still be the slider and fastball.”

Gray made 29 starts last year with Colorado and finished with a 4.59 ERA, but the underlying Statcast data shows that the righty was generally better than what his numbers indicate. He produced a .236 opponents’ xBA, which tied for the lowest mark of his career and was better than league average.

“He’s got a lot of weapons,” manager Chris Woodward said. “He was getting down the mound good. The ball was coming out and had good life. The slider looked really good.”

Gray, when at his best, is a strikeout pitcher. He has averaged 9.2 K/9 IP since debuting in 2015, and he has amassed 15 career double-digit strikeout performances. Last season, no Rangers pitcher that reached the 60-inning plateau struck out more than one batter per inning.

Lose one in the sun, hit one to the sun
The only blemish on Gray’s day was a first-inning run that scored on the at-bat following left fielder Nick Solak's misplay due to the sun. Solak did not start a game in the outfield last season, but positional flexibility will be imperative to him finding at-bats once the regular season begins. 

After the early miscue, Solak made up for it in spades, cranking an opposite-field two-run home run in the sixth inning that put Texas ahead for good. It was his second homer of the spring, bringing him to 4-for-10 at the plate so far.

“He’s been great, hitting the ball hard,” Woodward said. “He won the game for us today. 

“The cool thing is, when we start seeing Solak go across the field like that -- obviously he’s got a ton of power the other way -- but he’s driven some balls in camp. I know to start camp last year, he was having a little trouble getting on time; this year, he’s kind of hit the ground running.”

Same glove, new spot
• When the Rangers inked Marcus Semien to a seven-year, $175 million pact on Dec. 1, they did so with the intention that he would primarily play second base. While Semien did man the keystone last season with the Blue Jays, he’s a shortstop at heart, having held down starting duties with the A’s from 2015-20.

Semien’s signing essentially coincided with that of Corey Seager’s. Seager will be the team’s full-time shortstop, but should he either serve as the designated hitter or get a day off during the regular season, Woodward plans to shift Semien back to his original position. The 31-year-old will get at least one start at short during Cactus League play as a means of staying fresh at the spot.

• In an effort to keep All-Star Adolis García fresh entering his second full big league campaign, Woodward mentioned that the team would continue to monitor his innings in center field, opting for starts in right field, as well.

“I want to keep him physically not burnt out because I know the toll that it took on him last year just playing that position,” Woodward explained. “It beats your body up when you play center field, especially the way he plays it.”