When Jon Gray made his major league debut on Aug. 4 of 2015, many Rockies fans wondered what had taken so long ... and many others wondered why the Rockies weren't waiting until next year to bring him up. Since the Rockies took the now 24-year-old righty third overall in the 2013 draft, he's been arguably (Franklin Morales has an argument) the highest-touted pitching prospect the system had ever seen. Signed to a $4.8 million bonus, Gray was touted as having a ceiling of a true No. 1 starter, a solid oak of a pitcher with two plus-plus offerings and a possible third in the works.
Gray's professional debut in 2013 was nothing short of explosive: a 1.93 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, and 12.3 K/9 over 37 innings. That included a couple of starts in which Gray was instructed to work on new pitches. In Modesto, Gray had four starts and 24 innings pitched, during which he posted an 0.75 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, and 13.5 K/9. That's preposterous, and it led to Gray's placement in the top 15 of national prospect lists prior to the 2014 season.
In 2014, the Rockies once again worked with Gray to refine his arsenal, and as such he was slightly less effective at Double-A Tulsa. Normally, a 3.91 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and 8.2 K/9 performance over 124⅓ IP in Double-A against opponents that were on average 2.5 years older would be excellent. Gray was no ordinary prospect though, and there were concerns among both fans and national prospect writers that the Rockies were reining him in unnecessarily and trying to turn him into a pitch-to-contact, groundball pitcher. Still though, national prospect lists kept him in that same top 15 range heading into this year.
In spring training prior to the 2015 season, Gray had a very strong showing in big league camp, leading to some calls for him to break camp without throwing a pitch in Triple-A. Some argued against this position for service time reasons, saying the Rockies should wait until late April or May, and some felt that he just wasn't quite ready for the Show yet. The front office agreed with the latter group and sent Gray to Triple-A Albuquerque to start the year.
There's no way to sugarcoat this: Gray was dreadful in his first month with the Isotopes. In four starts, he had a 10.70 ERA and 2.26 WHIP, and Pacific Coast League batters hit .400 off of him. After that rough patch though, Gray turned it around in a big way, allowing three or fewer earned runs in his next 10 starts (and 15 of his 17). Before the aforementioned August call to the Show, Gray finished with a Triple-A line of 114⅓ innings pitched over 21 games (20 starts), a 4.33 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 1.49 WHIP, and 8.7 K/9. Considering where his numbers were after April, that's borderline miraculous.
Gray's exploits in the majors in 2015 have been well publicized here and elsewhere, from the high of his one-hit performance against the Mets in his second start to the low of his fourth start (also against the Mets), a seven run outing in fewer than two innings. In all, Gray threw 40⅔ frames for the Rockies with a 5.53 ERA and 1.62 WHIP (with 0.3 rWAR and 0.8 fWAR). Gray did have great results in a small road game sample (2.70 ERA, 11.3 K/9 in 20 innings over four starts), but was knocked around quite a bit in his five Coors starts (8.27 ERA, 2.10 WHIP in 20 2/3 frames). It's a bit early to call Gray a failure at Coors, but it was hardly an auspicious start.
Notably though, Gray's peripheral stats pointed towards him being very unlucky in 2015 at the major league level. To wit, Gray's FIP was 3.63, nearly two full points lower than his ERA, indicating that the damage against Gray was done primarily on balls in play and that some positive regression is to be expected. Gray's .384 BABIP at the major league level backs this assertion up and Gray's stellar 8.9 K/9 is a strong indicator that he has the ability to miss major league bats. For what it's worth, the Steamer 2016 projections on Gray, available on Fangraphs, project his ERA to decline to 4.20 with a 8.3 K/9 over 160 innings - which would be worth 2.3 fWAR, making Gray an above average MLB starter in his rookie year.
Thus far in his professional career, I feel like we haven't seen the fully unleashed Gray. He's almost always had some sort of conditions placed upon him by the Rockies front office, whether it be on his stuff (asking him to throw a lot of changeups), location (keeping the ball down), pitch count (such as the 75-pitch limit he was on in his 2015 big league cameo), or innings (he threw 155 in 2015). In my opinion, those restrictions have led to the considerable speculation by fans and prospect writers that Gray's stuff has backed up somewhat from when the Rockies drafted him.
However, I think the beast is still there, though maybe not in the form of a true No. 1 guy. Gray at his best is a firebreathing, unhittable terror with an upper 90s fastball, filthy slider, and a developing changeup. Both the fastball and slider have been ranked by some as being the best versions of those pitches among any prospect in the minor leagues. Recently MLB.com ranked Gray as having the fourth-best arsenal among all prospects (fellow PuRP Jeff Hoffman ranked even higher, placing third), highlighting in particular that fastball/slider combo.
It's true that Gray's velocity no longer sits in the high 90s regularly now that he's pitching every five days instead of every seven, but he has shown the ability to reach for the velocity when he needs to. I think that next year the Rockies will finally let Gray do his thing, this time at the big league level and with far fewer restrictions than he has now. I'm no professional scout though, so I'll let the pros give their most recent opinion of Gray.
In Baseball Prospectus's preseason 2015 top Rockies prospects list, Nick Faleris had Gray up top with a 70 overall future potential and a realistic 60 (No. 3 starter) floor:
Strengths: Workhorse build with physicality and aggressiveness on the bump; confident pounding the zone with upper-90s heater; triple-digit capable; fastball plays across quadrants; wipeout slider works in and out of zone; elite two-pitch combo with parallel plane and release; developmental focus on change piece, flashing hard fade and deception; frontline offerings so good even average changeup will miss bats and barrels; can flip script with change-of-pace curve.
Weaknesses: Changeup still lags relative fastball/slider; can struggle on both ends, implementing too firm or alternatively slowing arm and tipping; content pitching to contact and limited pitch count leave some question as to how dominant the stuff might be against top-tier bats; some stiffness in landing likely limits command ceiling.
Observing Gray in 2014 was akin to witnessing a bartender utilize a bottle of Lagavulin 16 to pour you a glass of Johnny Black -- the result was perfectly satisfying, but lacked the impact and finish you anticipated upon spying the distinctive glass. The body, control, and quality of weaponry is everything you'd expect in an elite power arm, but Colorado's conservative guidance this past summer left evaluators more reliant on projection than typical when grading out an advanced Double-A arm with loud present stuff.
Even with a focus on developing his third-best offering and pitching to contact, the former Sooner still found success, regularly inducing soft contact from Texas League bats thanks to his ability to generally live around the zone with two double-plus offerings, and it's tough to envision him failing to rack up strikeouts once permitted a slightly longer leash via pitch count and pitch selection. There is little doubt that Gray will be a valuable major-league asset, and anything shy of number three production, even in the challenging Coors environs, would come as a surprise. He should start 2015 in Triple-A, but may not face the requisite resistance to truly refine until he faces major-league lineups capable of handling his electric arsenal.
Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs also had Gray atop his Rockies prospect list before 2015, giving him a 60 Future Value grade:
Gray created tons of buzz midway through the 2013 spring coming from out of nowhere to hit 100 mph often, with a plus slider. I was lower on him than most, ranking him behind Mark Appel and Kris Bryant before the draft for a few reasons. It was new velocity we hadn't seen before and we didn't know if his body could handle (it has so far), it showed up on six days rest which would be reduced by 2 days each outing in pro ball, and if his arm speed slowed (as it does over time for every pitcher) so much of his value was tied to arm speed (his command was/is below average) that it would take all of his stuff down a notch and reduce the #1 starter upside people were putting on him.
Since signing, Gray's velocity has been down some, mostly sitting 91-94 and hitting 95 mph but Rockies sources say this is intentional and he's working on some things (they already smoothed out his delivery), which scouts assumed after Gray hit 98 mph in a short All-Star Game appearance. I think he'll settle at 92-94 with more movement and command, the slider is still plus and the changeup has its moments. Scouts are a little concerned that Gray is a below average athlete and the command still isn't quite there yet. Since the stuff is so good, that lesser command would just make him a 3/4 starter rather than a 2/3.
ESPN's Keith Law put Gray 42nd in his 2015 midseason top 50, fourth in the system (after placing him seventh overall as his top pitching prospect in minor league baseball the year before):
It hasn't been smooth for Gray since he began pro ball, as some delivery changes intended to improve his command have made it easier for hitters to see the ball and reduced the power on his fastball and slider. Gray reached 100 mph in college (pitching every seventh day), and is more 93-96 now with an inconsistent slider that flashes plus and a below-average changeup. He has had strong results pitching in Albuquerque, one of the best hitters' parks in organized baseball, this season, but he might be better suited to a relief role when he first reaches the majors, probably later this summer.
MLB.com placed Gray 33rd overall in their preseason 2016 list (and second in the Rockies system):
Gray's velocity dipped at times during his first full pro season as he made the transition to starting every fifth day, then rebounded last season. He usually operates in the mid-90s and has climbed as high as 102 mph with his fastball, which features heavy life that should help him succeed at Coors Field. Gray's slider can be a wipeout pitch at times, and he has turned his sinking changeup into a solid third offering.
While Gray has good body control for a big man, he'll probably never have pinpoint control. Pitching in Denver's high altitude is a difficult task, but he may have better pure stuff than any pitcher in franchise history.
Finally, Baseball Prospectus had Gray 33rd in their preseason 2016 list:
The career of a Colorado Rockies pitching prospect is only slightly less tenuous than that of a Spinal Tap drummer. While Gray can do his level best to stay away from gardening shears, he couldn't avoid breathing in the thin air of Albuquerque and Denver in 2015. Gray's fastball sits around 95, and his plus slider will be a bat-misser at the highest level, but command and altitude issues led to more loud contact than you would expect from an arm with his arsenal. He's already logged innings in the majors and has the frame to pitch 200 of them per season, but he will need to refine his changeup and improve his fastball command (and avoid spontaneously combusting, natch) to reach his no. 3 starter upside.
I'm a big believer in Brendan Rodgers, or else I would have placed Gray atop my ballot (he was second) as the majority of PuRPs voters did this time around. After all, he's got a realistic mid-rotation starter profile with the potential to be one of the best pitchers the Rockies have ever employed. I'm extremely excited for the Jon Gray era, and you should be too.
Please don't screw this up, Rockies.