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Rockies' Jon Gray is unsparing in his self-criticism, and that's a good thing

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Gray's introspection is what will lead him to becoming the best pitcher he can be

Following Wednesday’s loss against the Giants, Jon Gray has been the subject of considerable vitriol. The comments on Twitter and in varous Purple Row posts have stemmed from the mundane (“He’s having a bad night.” “He’s unlucky.”) to the prescriptive (“He needs to spend some time in AAA.” “The Rockies should trade him for a real ace.”) to the personal (“A third overall draft pick should be better than this.” “He needs a shave and a haircut.”). These kinds of comments go with the territory of professional sports, especially when a fandom is engaged.

I’ll leave to others the analysis of Gray’s pitching. (There are some good takes here and here, as well as at Hayden Ringer’s @hjjrrockies Twitter feed.) I’ll also recommend Jake Shapiro’s May 31 Rockies Road podcast as well as The Purple Dinosuar Podcast, both of which arrive at the same conclusion: Gray is a deeply talented pitcher who deserves our patience. The fact remains that in his five wins, he’s very, very good, throwing a 1.36 ERA. but in his six losses, he has a miserable 10.05 ERA.

One piece about Gray stands out, however, and not in a good way: Mark Kiszla’s “In Jon Gray, the Rockies have an ace that’s a head case.” Kiszla’s column has been widely (and deservedly) criticized. The use of the term “head case” suggests Kiszla should reconsider how he talks, thinks, and behaves publicly about mental illness in general.

In terms of their tone, Kizla’s comments are not out of step with those of some fans. A Purple Row colleague wrote on Slack, “The anti-Gray stuff on the internet seems super weird. Lots of people really seem to hate him for some reason beyond not performing well.”

I’d like to suggest a reason: Gray is being criticized for being open (indeed, vulnerable) about his struggles as a pitcher. As a professional athlete, he is expected to be “mentally tough.” Instead, Gray is very publicly working through it.

(My thinking about this became much clearer after reading Ameer Hasan Loggins’ excellent “Kevin Druant’s realness and vulnerability make him a champion worth celebrating beyond the court.”)

Jon Gray’s willingness to discuss his failures as a pitcher can be painful to watch. For example, Gray said of last year’s Wild Card game against the Diamondbacks, “I got outside myself. It stinks when it happens that fast.”

He spoke with Thomas Harding at mlb.com about his tough April outing against the Nationals:

Gray said he strayed from a mental checklist before each pitch that includes a strong stride, staying in line with his target and throwing through the target rather than to it. Instead, he strived for added nastiness -- and let his thoughts drift to the hitter, whom he doesn’t control.

”I’m trying to get the guy to swing and believe it’s going to be a fastball,” Gray said. “But when you tense up and really throw, you’re trying harder but throwing the ball higher, and it gives the guy a chance.”

”If I would have located the slider to Sierra the other day, down and away, we would have won.

Here he is in the Denver Post after that Giants game: “Gray said he felt like he ‘picked around the corners and got behind too much,’ and that his fastball was simply flat.” He is unsparing in his self-criticism. He added, “My slider’s getting really good — it was really good tonight — but I didn’t have anything else working. . . . A lot of that has to do with the mindset when throwing the fastball, because that sets up that pitch. I’ve got to really drive it in the strike zone and really make them feel it.”

In The Athletic, Gray said, “It was horrible . . . . Bad mindset. My stuff was really good, good enough to win. I just wasn’t going at guys.”

Nick Groke adds this:

Something is missing with Gray, something between the lines and off the scorebook. He can dominate an at-bat with overpowering stuff, with a fastball-slider combo among the best in the National League. But he can’t always dominate a game.

This is something learned, not given.

Again, consider the introspection. I am in awe of Gray’s ability to be so publicly honest about himself. He is confessing his struggles as a pitcher. He does not shirk responsibility, and he does not blame others. He risks ridicule for his self-reflection (say, being called a “head case”), and yet he does it.

As it happens, I watched Gray pitch against the Reds last Friday, my first trip to Coors Field. I was about 200 feet from the pitcher’s mound, too far away to see the details of his work with Tony Wolters. Gray struggled in the first inning, which was not unusual, and it ended with the Rockies behind, 2-0. I wondered how Gray managed to keep his composure after being down so early in the game. But he did, and he came back.

The next day, Nick Groke of The Athletic published an article outlining the conversations that Gray was having with himself and with Wolters:

Jon Gray toiled through seeing-eye singles and a parade of Reds batters early Friday as Coors Field squeezed him. The friendliest ballpark in baseball can hide a wicked scowl when a pitcher is struggling. What Gray needed was the feel.

So the Rockies’ starter shook off his catcher, twice, saying no to a fastball and a slider, looking for a signal to the pitch in his grasp.

“I knew exactly what I wanted,” Gray said. “I shook through to a curveball once and put it right on the plate where I wanted it and I was like, ‘Yes, that’s what you need to do. That’s it. You should do that every time.’ ”

Gray is talking to himself on the mound, trying to make peace between the dominant and talented Gray and the lost and frustrated Gray.

All of this happened in front of more than 33,000 people at Coors Field and a much larger media audience. Here’s Groke’s take: “Gray told himself he needed to not give Joey Votto and the Reds too much credit. Hitting is hard, Gray said, and he knows the right pitch mix and the correct locations can save his game.”

I am not sure I have seen Groke take such psychological liberties with any other Rockies player — Gray has, effectively, allowed a journalist into the intimacy of his mind. It suggests that Gray is not a “head case” but is instead confident enough not only to pitch in front of thousands but also to confess his problems to them.

Research Professor Brene Brown would call this “The power of vulnerability” (watch her Ted Talk for more). Those tough fan comments strike me as expressions of discomfort with watching Gray articulate vulnerability. They want him to be a fully formed ace; he knows there’s more to it.

By the way, Bud Black is absoutely the right teacher for him. As Groke observes, “Black toughed out a successful major-league pitching career, over 15 seasons and one World Series, because he grew a mental callus before he was thrown to the fire. He learned to tough it out.” In addition to “toughing it out,” Gray is “talking it out.”

Other Rockies pitchers routinely discuss their poor performances, but Gray’s introspection is of another order. Fans and some journalists seem less tolerant. I suspect this is, in part, because when he implodes he does so spectacularly, which makes him seem physically vulnerable, and after those episodes, he is deeply introspective, making himself even more vulnerable. To be vulnerable is, traditionally, seen as feminine, something most fans aren’t looking for in their sports idols. Add to that Gray’s distinctive (maybe even feminine) hair, and he becomes an athlete subverting some key sports expectations. But none of that has anything to do with his skills and his struggles as a pitcher.

Jon Gray isn’t a “head case.” He’s a talented pitcher with a track record of success who is struggling. But we’re going to have to be patient with him while he gets back to where he was. While we wait, we can use it as an opportunity to take inspiration from Gray and exercise some introspection ourselves.