Heading into 2016 one of the primary questions the Rockies faced was regarding the development of Jon Gray. His first nine big league starts were a bit of a mixed bag, but there were enough encouraging signs there to maintain hope. In the preseason he topped another PuRPs list but then it was announced he would miss the start of the season due to an abdominal strain. When he finally did make his season debut, he gave onlookers equal reasons to hope and to worry, allowing five runs and striking out ten in five innings.
Five months later there is little question that the Rockies have a bona fide front of the rotation starter in Gray. In 168 innings pitched he allowed a 4.61 ERA, 3.61 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP, which doesn’t seem great until we dig a little deeper into the advanced statistics: Gray had a 106 ERA+, meaning he was six percent better than league average after accounting for league and park effects. His 3.45 Deserved Run Average puts him in the top 30 in the league (but only top three on his own team) and was nearly a full run better than last year’s 4.44 DRA. He also set the franchise records for strikeouts in a season by a rookie (185), strikeouts in a game (16), and season strikeout rate (9.91 K/9).
To really understand why Gray is now viewed as the ace the Rockies needed, you need to look beyond the numbers and watch him mow down 16 Padres hitters.
It wasn’t all sliders and strikeouts this season, though, and Gray had his fair share of struggles on the mound. Three different times he didn’t make it out of the third inning, and on three other occasions he didn’t make it into the fifth. Despite these struggles, Gray made a number of improvements from last year to this year. Of course, the BABIP went down to some more down-to-earth, league-average numbers. That improvement is as obvious as it was predictable. Perhaps most notable improvement was his results against right handed hitters.
Surprisingly, Gray displayed a heavy reverse platoon split in 2015, allowing a .949 OPS to right-handed batters and a .755 to lefties. This changed in 2016. If you consider his usage charts split by batter handedness, you see that Gray relies a lot more on his slider against righties than lefties.
Part of his success in 2016 against righties stems from the fact that he turned to his slider even more. Of course, he also worked in his sinker and curveball — both of which were essentially non-existent in 2015 — to give batters a variety of looks. But it’s just one more example of just how powerful that slider is becoming for Gray.
Despite other pitchers producing better results, Gray has established himself as the unquestioned ace of the staff. If it wasn’t already, Gray Day is appointment viewing and there are already (safe) predictions tabbing him as the Opening Day starter. The remaining question is whether Gray can take that final step forward — from a phenomenal hurler with dominating stuff to a staff ace and leader the Rockies will need if their dreams of contention are going to come true.