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Jon Gray’s mysterious 2018 season

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People are seeking answers everywhere, and so is Gray

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You’re reading the 2018 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the season had by every player to play for the Rockies in 2018. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the least amount of rWAR and end up with the player with the most.

★ ★ ★

No. 9, Jon Gray (1.6 rWAR)

Jon Gray was perhaps baseball’s greatest mystery in 2018.

The facts are well known. After lasting only two innings in the 2017 Wildcard game against the Diamondbacks, Gray began 2018 as the expected cornerstone of the Rockies’ rotation. That changed when he exhibited significant location and command issues. After 18 starts in the first half of the season, Gray carried a 5.44 ERA and was sent to Albuquerque for a reset with the Isotopes and pitching coordinator Darryl Scott. As Manager Bud Black put it, “Talking to Jon, there are times he feels uncomfortable when he’s out there.”

While this was happening, Gray received significant national attention. There were the “star-pitcher-gets-sent-down” stories in addition to sabermetric speculation as experts tried to understand the almost unprecedented disparity between his 5.77 ERA and his 3.07 FIP.

The writing on Gray’s pitching anomalies is abundant and compelling: Craig Edwards’s “Did Jon Gray deserve his demotion to the minors?”; Zach Crizer’s “Circle change: The Gray matter”; Nick Groke’s “Why exactly was Jon Gray sent to Triple-A? The answer is easy, but the fix is complicated”; and Ben Lindbergh’s “Jon Gray is a riddle wrapped in a Rockies uniform.”

Upon his return to Denver, Gray was initially solid with a 2.59 ERA in seven starts. But then he returned to his pre-ABQ form. In his final outing against the Nationals, Gray lasted only two innings, giving up five runs and seven hits. The Rockies ultimately left him off of an NLDS 25-man roster that instead included reliever DJ Johnson. By the end of the season, Gray had a 5.12 ERA and a 4.08 FIP in 31 games and 172.1 innings. (His BaseballSavant Pitcher Visualization Report is available here.)

In Gray’s post-NLDS interview with the Denver Post, he revealed that he hadn’t been well during the season:

“I wasn’t really healthy . . . . My (velocity) was down this year. I was down about 20 pounds this year. I need to get back to 230-235.”

Asked if he was battling an illness, Gray answered: “Maybe, I’m not sure. My body kind of did a 180 (degree turn) this year and I’m not sure why. I want to get it back under control and get back to being strong.”

He plans to do that by hitting the gym and packing on muscle.

“I want to have the best offseason of my life, get huge physically, that’s what I was missing this year,” Gray said. “I wasn’t me. It’s tough to compete like that. I don’t want to ever have to do that again, I want to go out there strong every time, so I’ll start with that. That’s my main goal.”

So, what happened to Jon Gray?

The takes were diverse, passionate, and sometimes personal. Mark Kiszla weighed in early: Gray was a “head case.” A significant segment of Twitter shared Kizla’s mendacity. I was one of three people who tweeted for Purple Row during Rockies games. When Gray was having a bad game, our Twitter mentions became almost unreadable. No other player — not even Ian Desmond — received the kind of vitriol Gray did.

In his post-season ranking, Patrick Saunders referred to 2018 as Gray’s “lost season,” giving him a grade of “D.” Saunders noted that the Rockies had declined offers on Gray before the trade deadline but wondered if the team would instead trade him during the offseason. Nick Groke speculated to Nate Kreckman in The Athletic’s podcast that perhaps Gray was learning how to pitch at the MLB level. Groke wondered if Gray’s “stuff” had always been so good that he hadn’t learned how to really pitch in the way that, say, German Márquez had.

I’ve found Jake Shapiro’s analysis to be the most compelling, which he presented on the Rockie Road Podcast. (Shapiro also provides the unedited audio from Gray’s interview.) Here’s what Shapiro argues: In 2017, Gray sustained a navicular stress fracture in his left foot. Because Gray was “bulky,” the Rockies asked him to lose some weight in an attempt to reduce physical stress and, hopefully, allow him to throw more innings. Gray’s weight loss and accompanying loss of strength probably accounted for the decrease in his pitching velocity. This, in turn, created emotional stress, illness, and additional weight loss. As Shapiro notes, the Rockies “tried to change who he was, and he lost his identity.” Shapiro is optimistic about Gray’s future, though he is unsure whether Gray will continue as a starting pitcher or move to the bullpen.

To these analyses, I’d offer this. I’m not a professional athlete, but I’ve had some experience with the ways in which weight loss affects the sense of self. In 2010, I suddenly lost more than 25 lbs.— I don’t know exactly how much because I stopped weighing when I feared I would drop below 100 lbs. This was the result of a chronic illness I didn’t realize I had; emotional devastation at the end of a relationship (with a Mets fan); and stress in my job. My strength was gone, and routine tasks like climbing stairs or putting out the garbage became events that required planning. But perhaps the worst part was that I no longer felt like myself. None of my clothes fit; I was always cold; my hair began falling out because I was anemic; I stopped looking at myself in mirrors because the person reflected back felt like no one I knew.

I got better, and I gained the weight back, though it took more than two years. But everything was different. My body had changed, and it turned out that I had, too. Those clothes fit a version of myself that no longer existed, and I had to accept that I could never get back to her. That former self was never the destination, though: She was part of the journey to a stronger, wiser me.

What I went through was hard, but I can’t imagine experiencing it in a packed Coors Field during televised games critiqued by the press and everyone with a social media account. That’s not to say that athletes are above criticism — none of us is. But it is to ask that we have empathy for each other.

In that post-game interview, Patrick Saunders asked Gray how he could get back to “where he was,” and Gray answered by saying, “I want to get it back under control and get back to being strong.” The notion of “getting back” merits scrutiny.

I can’t explain the disparities in Jon Gray’s numbers, and I can’t help him become a better pitcher. But I hope that he will embrace 2018 as part of a journey to what’s next, not as an impediment keeping him from where he was. Getting strong won’t change that. He learned too much this year — good and bad — to go back to being 2017 Jon Gray.

Pitching Coach Steve Foster thinks “Gray will take a major step forward” in 2019. I agree, but the only way he’s going to get there is by looking ahead.