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Jon Gray’s inconsistent season was cut short by a shoulder injury

The 28-year-old’s velocity was down before he was placed on the IL in September

Welcome to the 2020 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2020. 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 lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.

★ ★ ★

No. 27, Jon Gray: -0.2 rWAR

Jon Gray had a phenomenal 2019, pitching himself all the way to the third spot in the 2019 Ranking the Rockies series. After a trip to Driveline in the 2018-2019 offseason, Gray pitched to an 11-8 record (.579) and a rotation-best 3.84 ERA. Unfortunately, he was unable to replicate the results in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Gray made eight starts in 2020 and posted a 2-4 record (.333), 6.69 ERA, and 1.436 WHIP in those starts. The winning percentage and ERA were both career worsts, and the 1.436 WHIP was his worst since his rookie season in 2015. However, it didn’t start that way. In his first two starts in 2020 combined, Gray pitched 10 13 innings and allowed four runs (three earned) on seven hits. He struck out five batters, but walked four. He earned his first decision (a loss) on August 5 against the Giants, but he still pitched six strong innings — allowing four runs (three earned on a three-run homer by Brandon Belt in the fourth inning) on five hits. He did not yield a walk and struck out two batters. After that, the wheels started to fall off and Gray became inconsistent — alternating between losses and wins in his next five starts before formally being placed on the Injured List with right shoulder inflammation on September 4.

Before the injury announcement, it was clear that Gray’s pitch velocity was down. In 2019, his four-seam fastball was clocked around 96 mph. In 2020, it was down to 94 mph. His slider, his second-most reliable pitch, was clocked at 88.3 mph in 2019 and 86.3 mph in 2020.

Jon Gray pitch velocity (per Baseball Savant)

Pitch 2017 velocity (mph) 2018 velocity (mph) 2019 velocity (mph) 2020 velocity (mph)
Pitch 2017 velocity (mph) 2018 velocity (mph) 2019 velocity (mph) 2020 velocity (mph)
Fourseam Fastball 96.0 94.7 96.0 94.0
Slider 89.7 87.8 88.3 86.3
Curveball 80.1 79.6 78.6 86.5
Changeup 88.6 86.3 86.7 77.8
Sinker 95.5 95.0 95.4 94.0

With his fastball velocity being down, Gray started relying more on his changeup. He still relied heavily on his fastball and slider, but the changeup was used 13.1% of the time — the most he’s ever relied on it. With the emergence of the changeup, his curveball usage was down from 11.1% in 2019 to 8.4% in 2020.

Jon Gray pitch usage (per Baseball Savant)

Pitch 2017 usage 2018 usage 2019 usage 2020 usage
Pitch 2017 usage 2018 usage 2019 usage 2020 usage
Fourseam Fastball 56.2% 49.6% 51.3% 48.3%
Slider 27.5% 34.0% 33.5% 29.2%
Curveball 13.8% 14.7% 11.1% 8.4%
Changeup 2.2% 1.6% 2.9% 13.1%
Sinker 0.4% 0.1% 1.2% 1.1%

Due to the velocity issues, Gray was getting hit harder. His average exit velocity increased from 89.9 mph to 90.3. His hard hit percentage increased from 43.8% to 46%, and his strikeout percentage dropped from 23.5% to 12.6% (which was in the bottom 1% of the league). However, the walk percentage was down from 8.8% to 6.3%, so that was good.

Gray is entering his final year of arbitration and will be a free agent after the 2021 season (aligning with Trevor Story’s free agency and Nolan Arenado’s potential opt out). It has been floated that he could potentially be moved to a permanent spot in the bullpen (he has made one career relief appearance on June 16, 2019 against the Padres), but manager Bud Black shot down that option, saying, “It’s probably safe to say, from my perspective, that Jon is much more valuable in the rotation.”

The former third-overall pick has had an up-and-down career with the Rockies. Depending on how the shoulder injury affects him, it’s safe to say that 2021 will be arguably the most important year of the Gray Wolf’s career in purple.