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I hope the audience will indulge me as I deep-dive just a single pitcher this week: Jon Gray. Following a record-setting performance surrounded by eyebrow-raising starts on either side, his story deserves a full episode.

Jon Gray

I’ve written about Jon Gray several times here on Baseball Prospectus. It started with a piece in the 2014 preseason, in which I evaluated his stock as a quick-rising prospect in the Rockies’ farm system. The prospect-heavy offseason provided another chance for me to cover his progress prior to the 2015 campaign, as part of a mechanics-centric prospect piece that I did in conjunction with BP hitting mastermind Ryan Parker. I also wrote about Gray in this space back in the seventh week of the season, highlighting his up-and-down performance, the development of his changeup, his mechanical adjustments since being drafted and the ever-changing radar gun readings on his fastball.

Suffice to say, I’ve been very interested in Gray’s rise through the Rockies’ system, and though it seems that every Colorado prospect is dubbed “the one who can survive Coors,” this right-hander has thus far justified the hyperbole. He is still going through some growing pains at the highest level, with Rocky Mountain peaks but Death Valleys to match on his game log, but Gray flashes upside that has never been seen before in a Colorado pitcher.

Gray has been afforded some extra rest between starts recently, and perhaps the additional downtime helped to carve out the opportunity for his 16-strikeout masterpiece of a shutout at Coors Field, but the games on the bookends of that start suggest that the extra time between starts has done nothing to thwart his rollercoaster ride of performance.

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

September 23

4.0

4

3

2

4

10

106

September 17

9.0

0

4

0

0

16

113

September 10

4.0

6

8

0

3

3

87

Gray’s incredible start on September 17th earned the highest Game Score of the season for any pitcher in the majors, scoring 102 on the Bill James scale for single-game pitcher dominance, and his 16 strikeouts broke the single-game record for a Rockies’ pitcher. The fact that the game came against the Padres takes a little bit of luster off the gem, but the polish is reapplied when considering that he accomplished the feat at his high-altitude home of Coors Field.

Interestingly, Gray had also faced the light-hitting, free-swinging Friars in his previous start on September 10th, pitching under the protective marine layer in San Diego, and yet the right-hander was knocked around in that game. Fast forward to Friday’s start against the Dodgers, and Gray was once again ousted at sea level on the road, but his massive strikeout count (10 of his 12 outs were Ks) forms the foundation of the young right-hander’s upside.

Somewhat shockingly, Gray has actually been better in the thin air of Coors Field this season than he has been when pitching on the road. Check out the numbers:

IP

K

BB

HR

WHIP

ERA

Home

83.2

94

18

9

1.12

4.30

Away

79.0

88

38

9

1.35

4.78

Gray’s K/BB ratio is absolutely ridiculous when pitching at home, registering at greater than five Ks for every free pass (home K/BB = 5.2), but away from Coors Field that number is slashed in less than half at 2.3 strikeouts for every walk. This could very well be a small-sample anomaly, but the above split is notable if only because those stat lines aren’t reversed. At the very least, Gray has proven to not be intimidated by pitching at altitude, though his empty-swinging opponent played a role in Gray’s club-record 16 strikeout performance on September 17 – he and Vincent Velasquez can share stories over golf, as they’ll both have a clear schedule in about a week – as Gray has had six games of double-digit strikeouts this season, a whopping three of which have come against the Padres.

I noted in the previous article that Gray’s velocity was back to being in the double-plus category, averaging greater than 96 mph and spiking in the upper-90s, and the right-hander has maintained the high-octane gas throughout the season – he has averaged 96.5 mph on the fastball in each of his last two games. It’s not the fastball that fueled his strikeout binge of last weekend, however, but the slider.

Of the 26 strikeouts that Gray has compiled over the last two games (in just 13.0 innings), a ridiculous count of 17 of them have been finished by his 88-90 mph slider, according to Brooks. The pitch has been his finishing move on 109 of his 182 strikeouts on the season (59.9 percent), with 49 of the remaining 73 Ks coming via the fastball, and opposing batters are hitting just .178 with a meager .262 slug on Gray’s slider. It’s a hard breaker that might be called a cutter by some, averaging 89.4 mph and leaving his hand on the same plane and trajectory as his fastball, a trait that combines with Gray’s plus extension to effectively shrink the decision window that batter’s have to identify the incoming pitch.

In my first article about Gray this year, I also mentioned how his delivery – which had backslid in terms of mechanical efficiency during the 2015 season – was back to being a tremendous asset, with improvements in both power and stability. What I didn’t do was to provide a mechanics report card to evaluate his current motion, so let’s take a look at his current delivery and see how it compares to that of a few years ago.

Mechanics Report Card

Feb ‘14

Sep ‘16

Balance

65

65

Momentum

55

60

Torque

70

70

Posture

65

65

Repetition

N/A

55

Overall

B+

B+

The first set of grades represent what I gave Gray in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide and were based on his performance in 2013, coming off a partial season in the pros after being selected third overall in the ‘13 draft. Such high marks are nearly unprecedented for an amateur hurler, measuring above some historically great pitchers when they were at the same stage of their careers. To put his grades into some context, consider that I gave out report cards for the mechanics of 211 pitchers in that year’s Starting Pitcher Guide, and only ten received overall grades higher than the B+ of Gray.

Granted, there is some projection built into the overall score because he was a prospect and I didn’t have a grade for the all-important Repetition subject on the report card. But the list for the Starting Pitcher Guide was mostly full of big-league arms (including all 10 pitchers with an A- grade or better) and he was already pitching with the baseline of a 60-to-65 grade delivery on a major league scale. This is his delivery now:

When I wrote about Gray back in May, I noted that his delivery had gone backwards in 2015, with knocks to his power as well as his stability, but that the early returns for 2016 were that he was back to the old tricks that earned him such high marks for his mechanics as an amateur. The velocity is back after a year-long hiatus, with improved hip-shoulder separation and more consistent timing to his trigger. His command has benefited from improved balance, plus Gray has added some arm-side run on some fastballs that help to invoke weak contact, allowing the improvements to pitch command to play up further as he can locate hard pitches with movement.

His center of gravity has some drop from max leg lift to foot strike, but it’s a more gradual lowering as opposed to the sudden drop that accompanies a collapse of the back leg, lessening the disruption to his repetition. His side-to-side (X plane) balance is nearly perfect, as is his rubber-to-plate (Z plane) stability through lift and stride, culminating in excellent posture with very little spine-tilt as he reaches release point.

The momentum has gone up a half-tick on the grading scale since 2013, and though his leg lift slows as the knee reaches its apex, it’s the second gear of his forward momentum that is most impressive. Gray doesn’t make a ton of forward progress in the earliest phases of his delivery, but he does get it going in the right direction, and he shoots out of a cannon once he initiates the stride phase of his delivery. The right-hander carves a smooth-yet-quick path of kinetic energy that is directed straight at the target, and his improved ability to line up the gears of rotation suggest that the quicker pace to the plate is in sync with his personal timing signature.

Gray’s greatest asset is still his torque, as he utilizes a combination of some upper-body load with a strong delay of trunk rotation to create massive hip-shoulder separation at its maximum. The torque grade actually suffered last year and it wasn’t a coincidence that his velo went down accordingly. The lack of max torque was timing-related, as Gray struggled to coordinate his gears of rotation or exhibit the delayed trigger necessary to maximize his separation. The burst of momentum that we see today makes it easier for Gray to line up the gears, enabling one power category (momentum) to have a positive influence on the other power category (torque).

His repetition is still a work in progress yet currently grades out as above average, leaving Gray with tremendous upside and validating his B+ grades. He is on the cusp of A-grade efficiency, with the biggest area of improvement—repetition—being the last element that typically comes around for a pitcher, and with Gray having the mechanical stability to dream on more improvements in the future.

Thank you for reading

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