2016 Fantasy Baseball: Prospect Profile — Jon Gray
The Colorado Rockies are forced to evaluate pitching in a different way than every other team in baseball because of their home park, Coors Field. Perched just over a mile above sea level, the stadium’s effect on the ball drastically changes the way pitches move and takes a great deal of bite off of the breaking stuff. The Rockies have tried to build their pitching staff in the past years around heavy sinker ballers like Aaron Cook, or changeup specialists like Jeff Francis; however, neither strategy had resulted in prolonged pitching success in the altitude of Colorado. There are some smart people working in the front office of this organization, and with the recent moves the Rockies have made this past year, it seems like the ballclub is taking a new course of action once again.
Instead of trying to counteract the “Coors Effect” on breaking pitches, it appears that the Rockies are going to “steer into the skid” and construct a pitching staff with guys who succeed off their fastball. While bullpen acquisitions like Jake McGee and Jason Motte point to this, there is no bigger pitching potential in Colorado than right-handed pitching prospect, Jon Gray. Gray features a power fastball, power slider mix and has been developing a changeup with some sink as well.
Gray has been known to feature a dominant fastball since his days at Oklahoma, and had he thrown enough innings to qualify last season, his 94.4MPH average fastball velocity would have ranked 13th among all big league starters. While he tends to sit mid-90s with that heavy fastball, Gray also has the ability to gear it up to 100MPH and has even reach back enough to hit the 102 mark. He’s a big body at 6’4” 235 pounds but has minimal movement in his delivery and decent control over that body as well.
Gray was drafted third overall in the 2013 MLB amateur player draft right after Stanford pitcher Mark Appel and 2015’s National League Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant. He signed with the club for $4.8MM, which happened to be a Colorado Rockies pitching record. Although Gray did debut in the Major Leagues in late August of last season, he still maintains his rookie status and ranks 35th and 37th on MLB.com and Baseball America’s respective Top-100 Prospect Lists for 2016.
Gray wasn’t particularly impressive in his 40 ⅔ innings pitched in 2015, but he had some encouraging starts sprinkled into his nine-game cup of coffee with the big league club. Gray’s FIP numbers were solid for a young pitcher getting acclimated to the major leagues with a 5.53 ERA, 3.63 FIP, and 3.84 xFIP. He also did a pretty good job at limiting the damage against him while he was on the mound, posting a 40/14 K/BB ratio and a 9.8% HR/FB ratio. As a frame of reference for his small 40 inning sample size, Gray’s HR/FB ratio was the same as the Mets’ Matt Harvey and even better than Dodgers’ ace Clayton Kershaw. He also had a decent 43.8% ground ball rate which shows that his ability to limit homers in the show last season was not just a fluke.
The Steamer projections on Fangraphs have Gray turning his solid rate stats in 2015 into a fairly successful 2016 rookie campaign. They have the ERA coming down from 5.53 to 4.20 with a .299 BABIP and an 8.25 K/9. These stats are more in line with Gray’s Triple-A numbers where he was able to strike out 22% of batters faced with a 3.88 FIP and an 8.66 K/9. The KATOH projections also have Gray being roughly a 3.5 WAR pitcher once he settles into the big leagues, and while some of these numbers do not point to overwhelming future success, it is important to keep in mind that they are relative to Coors Field, and that the Rockies are likely valuing his FIP over his ERA numbers.
Gray’s stuff alone profiles him as a number three starter at the very worst, with the potential to be a frontline pitcher if he can make some tweaks to his game. Former Rockies General Manager Dan O’Dowd says Gray can get a little methodical with his delivery at times, and has some inconsistencies with his arm slot which causes him struggle with fastball command on the corners. However, his slider is an elite pitch in terms of both whiffs and command, so his pitch repertoire should keep him from being moved to the bullpen. The slider is said to have a tight downward movement with glove-side bite and can reach the upper-80s in velocity.
Gray has stated that he has some worries about pitching at Coors Field which he will need to get out of his head for sure if he’s going to succeed with the Rockies. In 20 innings away from Coors Field last season, Gray posted a 2.70 ERA with an 11 K/9 and .216 batting average against, so he’s absolutely shown the ability to pitch at this level. He needs to hash out his mechanical issues to improve on his command, but with his stuff, Gray has the ceiling to be the best Rockies pitcher ever. If there were ever a pitcher built to conquer the thin air of Colorado, Jon Gray may very well be the man for the job.