Good, bad, good, bad...great? That’s the story of Jon Gray since 2017. The hurler has been well known by Colorado Rockies fans for his inconsistent career despite having some of the better physical tools among starting pitchers in the league. The valleys that come with his hills were quite evident in 2020 as he stumbled to a 6.69 ERA in eight starts in the truncated campaign. Over 39 innings, he was touched up to the tune of 10.4 H/9 while posting a career low 12.6% strikeout rate which resulted in a K/9 of just 5.1, easily the lowest of his career. His poor numbers came in tandem with a decrease in velocity and come September he was shut down with shoulder inflammation.
Now here we sit in 2021. The velocity is still down, but the numbers are way up. Through his first four starts, Gray has posted a 2.42 ERA and 23.1% strikeout rate while surrendering just one home run this season, giving him a 1.2 bWAR which ranks fourth among all pitchers. So, if the average fastball velocity is relatively the same as last season (94.0 mph in 2020 and 93.8 in 2021) then what was changed?
Well, the most obvious answer is his increased slider usage. Kenny Kelly at Beyond the Box Score did an excellent dive into Gray’s repertoire earlier this month and it touches on this point perfectly. Kelly’s article covered Gray’s first two starts and while the one-two punch of Gray’s fastball and slider arsenal was evident then, the ratios have only gone up since. He is now sitting at a 42.6% fastball utilization while the slider is just behind at 38.6%.
As the chart shows, the build towards a heavy majority usage of the fastball and slider has been a work in progress for years now. As his slider has continued to develop in terms of vertical depth and spin rate so has his confidence in the pitch. In 2021, that confidence has developed into near equilibrium with his fastball usage and the two pitches are now feeding off of each other.
Gray’s trust in his slider has been justified not only by the action on the pitch itself, but also the results. Opponents are swinging and missing at his slider 28.2% of the time when it is thrown in the strike zone.
This is the highest mark for the slider since Gray’s first taste of major league action in 2015 and shows the development of the pitch since he introduced it to big league hitters at an underutilized rate of just 19.2%. Now that the life on the slider and trust in throwing it has grown, his fastball effectiveness has actually flourished despite the decreased velocity.
Gray’s K% on fastballs has spiked up to 23.5%. That is the highest rate of his career and is almost double his 2020 season total of 12.1% in just 17 less innings pitched. So, how has the increased effectiveness of his slider correlated in more strikeouts with the fastball?
Notice the pattern?
The swing and miss ratio on Gray’s fastball out of the strike zone is at a career high mark of 41.7%. Simply put, opponents are reaching for his fastball more frequently, especially above the strike zone, because they’re seeing the slider almost as often and it has become much harder for them to handle separating the two pitches after release.
But the swing and misses on Gray’s fastball is just the tip of the iceberg. After all, Gray’s 2021 strikeout rate of 23.1% is in line with his 2015-2019 season. To truly appreciate how well his heater is performing we have to look at what happens when opponents do make contact with it.
This is what tells the real story of Jon Gray’s success so far in 2021. Opponents’ hard hit percentage (qualified as having an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher) has plummeted all the way down to 28.6% against Gray’s fastball so far in 2021. This is easily a career low mark for Gray and is almost half that of his 2019 and 2020 seasons.
This lack of hard contact is what’s at the root of Gray’s success in the young season. The peripherals at Baseball Savant agree too. His xwOBA, xSLG and xERA are all in the top third of the league, which is a direct byproduct of the soft contact he has induced as represented by his Barrel % and Hard Hit % all being in the top fifth of the league.
To put in plainly, his success is not a fluke. He is off to a magnificent start this season and it will be interesting to see if he can continue this dominance. But there’s no denying the Jon Gray ride in Colorado has certainly had its ups and downs over the years, so it’s hard to be completely sold at this point. However, if his slider usage and effectiveness remains high and his fastball can continue to induce soft contact, 2021 could be the highest peak in performance we’ve seen from him yet.
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Thomas Harding brings light to the recently published book “Game 163: The Epic ‘07 Wild Card Tiebreaker, and the Rockies Team That Went to the World Series” authored by long-time Denver journalist Denny Dressman. The 230 page book dives deep into the play-in wild card game between the Rockies and the Padres on October 1st, 2007 with interviews from numerous figures involved in the action.
Harding also touches on the path to the creation of the 2007 squad and how it relates to the Rockies current situation. Disastrous free agent contracts led the Rockies down a long path back to relevance, but patience and a core of homegrown talent ultimately brought the organization to their high-water mark.
Despite the recent good vibes coming from the team after their sweep of the Houston Astros, the Rockies still have the worst record in the majors at 6-12. While the overall outcome of the 2021 season still remains to be seen, Kyle Newman of the Denver Post breaks down the five most disastrous Rockies seasons to date.
The 2012 team, the final under the managerial helm of Jim Tracy, holds the unceremonious honor of most losses in a season (98) with the 2014 (96) and 2005 (95) teams not far behind. Newman’s top also five includes the inaugural 1993 team and finishes with the 2008 team which, while not being a part of the organizations eight 90+ loss seasons, experienced a painful tailspin in the last month of the season to fall out of the wild card lead and finish third in NL West.
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