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Jon Gray looks to embrace data to continue success in 2020

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2019 was a career year for Jon Gray. Thanks to lessons learned at Driveline and the knowledge of Steve Merriman, Gray is equipped with data to help him be even better in 2020.

While multiple spots are up for grabs in the 2020 Colorado Rockies starting rotation, Jon Gray is one of the sure bets. He even appears on track to be the Opening Day starter.

Gray pitched 150 innings of 3.84 ERA ball in 2019, good for an 82 DRA- (that is, 18% better than average) after league and park factors were taken into account. By WARP, it was Gray’s best year in the majors (he had better numbers in 2017 but in about 40 fewer innings).

The 28-year-old unfortunately saw his season cut short by a left foot fracture, and he was placed on the 60-day Injured List on August 21. This was the second time Gray has experienced issues in his left foot, as he also spent a little over two months on the IL with a navicular stress fracture in 2017.

2018 was another season in which Gray didn’t spend all of his time in the majors, but it wasn’t due to injury. He was sent down to the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes for a couple weeks due to poor performance. At the time of his demotion, his ERA was 5.77. He rebounded a bit when he returned, finishing the season with a 5.12 ERA.

Peripheral statistics from 2018 indicated Gray was much better than his bottom-line results. He struck out 9.6 batters per nine innings, while walking only 2.7 per nine. That ratio was one of the top 20 in the game among all starting pitchers. Serving up 1.4 home runs per nine innings was his greatest undoing, but he still finished the year with a FIP that was over a run lower than his ERA (4.08) and a DRA- of 99, indicating he was a roughly league average pitcher.

“It was good to know that there was a lot of bad stuff happening that wasn’t just me,” Gray told Purple Row. “But I was still upset at the way I was throwing the ball. It could have been a lot better. It shouldn’t have been that bad.”

During that rough patch in 2018, Mark Kiszla of the Denver Post weighed in by calling Gray a “head case.” And that was tame compared to what Purple Row’s Twitter mentions were flooded with in terms of criticism of Gray’s 2018 performance.

For his part, Gray said the social media reactions didn’t have much of an effect on him.

“If I see something that’s negative, I don’t really care,” Gray said. “I really know what’s going on because I’m right in the middle of it. I don’t let someone who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about at all dictate how I feel, so I just let it go.”

To this day, Gray hasn’t made any excuses for his poor performance in 2018, and he was introspective at the time, as Purple Row’s Renee Dechert detailed.

So, what was it that marked the big changes in Gray’s performance from 2018 to 2019? For one thing, Gray benefited from his time at Driveline, as Aniello Piro of Mile High Sports wrote about last season.

“When I went to Driveline, I really learned a lot about myself and how I work on the mound,” Gray told Purple Row. “I learned that my fastball actually does play up in the zone, and that’s a strength of mine.”

Gray also said his secondary pitches have become “a lot sharper” thanks to his experiences at Driveline.

The promotion of Steve Merriman from Hartford Yard Goats pitching coach to minor league pitching coordinator has provided another avenue for Gray to continue using data to allow himself to get even better.

“(Merriman) goes right along with the whole Driveline stuff,” Gray said. “He knows exactly what all that means. All the data and that stuff—he can read it. He’s a guy that can translate that to what you’re doing on the mound.”

Gray was much improved in 2019, but there is still room for growth, and he said he has set some goals for 2020.

“(I) definitely need to get to 200 innings pitched,” he said. “I still haven’t hit that yet. And I want to strike out 200 guys.”