SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Right-hander Jon Gray looks like the right kind of inspirational leader for a Rockies team smarting from a painful 2019 season.
Last Spring Training, Gray was trying to prove he had been toughened by the bruises and callouses from 2018 -- a 5.12 ERA during a season that included a brief option to Triple-A, and no spot for him on the National League Division Series roster.
The Rockies finished 71-91 in ’19 but Gray (11-8, 3.84 ERA in 26 games/25 starts) was one of the brightest stories until he was shut down in August for surgery to repair a left (landing) foot stress fracture.
If Gray can bounce back in ’19, why not his club in ’20?
“When you stumble, a big test is how you recover, and Jon did a really good job of that last year -- ’18 was tough for Jon,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He bounced back. Last year, he threw the ball well. He was a little banged up with the foot and a couple other things. But I thought there was a lot of growth.”
Pitching home games at Coors -- where Gray went a solid 6-2 with a 3.46 ERA -- and for the Rockies in general will make a pitcher tough.
It has been nearly 20 years since the team singed star starting pitchers on the free-agent market. Such risk-aversion was fine in 2018 and 2019, when starters who had never thrown a pitch for another Major League team fueled consecutive postseason berths for the first time in its history. But last year’s 5.87 starter ERA (second-highest in club history) bruised the group’s reputation.
But Gray’s performance during a tough season stands as an argument for developing from within.
Gray became the first pitcher in club history to win at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons. By fanning 150 in 150 innings last season, he joined Ubaldo Jiménez (2008-10) and Pedro Astacio (1998-2000) as the only pitchers in Rockies history to fan 150 or more in three seasons.
Accomplishments give him credibility, and he vows to use it positively.
“There is a sense of that, at least from the pitching staff,” Gray said. “Whenever I’m playing catch with somebody different and they’re showing me a breaking ball or something like that, I’m going to give them an honest opinion. That’s the best kind of leader I can be -- be honest and accountable.”
Gray set the example last year by making a major adjustment.
His slider has always been considered a devastating pitch. But in 2018 he was dogged by periodic mistakes. According to Statcast, on his 952 sliders, opponents hit for just a .226 average and it finished 92 strikeouts, but he gave up 11 homers.
As 2019 progressed, Gray said he would “trick myself into believing I’m throwing a fastball.” The result was less horizontal break than he wanted but he could live with the downward bite. The pitch finished off 91 strikeouts and yielded just a .183 average -- and he trimmed the homers to three. Through grip and mindset adjustments he made during the offseason, not only on the slider but his curveball, he reports "pitch shape is really good right now.”
Gray sees the same thirst for advancement throughout the staff.
“Our guys are super-talented,” Gray said. “We’ve all seen them put it on display. It’s just about trying to figure out how to get them there and keep them there. If we get to that spot, we’re going to be really dangerous.”