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Prospect Retrospective: Jon Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies

Young Colorado starter Jon Gray will start tonight’s Wild Card game against Arizona. Here’s a look at his career so far.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight the Colorado Rockies will send right-hander Jon Gray to the mound against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Wild Card game. Here’s a quick look at what the young Rockies starter was like as a prospect.

An outstanding college pitcher at the University of Oklahoma, Gray had a breakout spring in 2013, posting a 1.64 ERA in 126 innings for the Sooners with an outstanding 147/24 K/BB ratio. Selected third-overall in the draft, he was expected to advance rapidly through the system.

His pro debut that summer was a success: a 1.93 ERA in 37 innings between the Pioneer and California Leagues with a 51/8 K/BB. Here’s the report I wrote on him entering 2014:

Drafted third-overall last June, University of Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray has all the ingredients necessary to be a number one starter. He throws very hard: 94-98 MPH, topping out at 100-102 at his best. His slider is excellent, and he also has a solid changeup. His command is unusually good for a young power pitcher, with consistent mechanics and a strong body that promises durability. His statistical performance in college was excellent and remained that way in pro ball. Basically, everything is excellent. The only blemish in his profile was a positive test for the stimulant drug Adderall right before the draft, but nobody seems to think it is a big deal. He’s got terrific mound presence so the makeup factors look good, too. Gray carries the risks you find with any young pitcher but certainly looks like a Grade A prospect to me.

Gray’s 2014 campaign wasn’t as good as expected, being merely solid instead of excellent. He posted a 3.91 ERA in 124 innings for Double-A Tulsa, with a 113/41 K/BB. More important than the number was a decline in velocity, as detailed in his scouting report entering 2015:

The third overall pick in the 2013 draft, University of Oklahoma right-hander Jon Gray didn’t have an excellent season in 2014. It wasn’t a bad season by any means; he was solid enough, just not as dominant as expected. Gray crossed the 100 MPH barrier in college but his fastball lost a tick last year, down to 93-95 MPH most of the time, which is certainly good but not as impressive as the 96-100 area. His slider remained a powerful pitch and he made some progress refining his change-up. His overall sense of command and control was perhaps a little stronger than expected, but he was clearly gassed in August and was shut down a few weeks early to spare his arm. So, what do we have here? Gray is a really good prospect but looked more like a strong number three starter last year, not a dominant ace-type like he looked at Oklahoma. Some observers who saw Gray with both the Sooners and Tulsa felt his stuff was down a bit, not just the loss in velocity but some decline in movement too. Not everyone agreed with that, however, with some observers liking him as much as they ever did. I am reminded of Sonny Gray, no relation to Jon but with a similar pattern: a top college pitcher who didn’t blow away Double-A hitters in his first season. Sonny Gray figured it out and I think there is a good chance Jon Gray will, too, as long as he stays healthy. Grade A-

Gray split 2015 between Triple-A Albuquerque and Colorado, posting a 5.53 ERA in his first nine major league starts, albeit with a nice 40/14 K/BB in 41 innings. He retained rookie status for 2016 and I filed this report:

Jon Gray’s stock has slipped with some evaluators but I’m not sure that’s fair. Although he hasn’t replicated the 100+ MPH readings he posted in college, he still has plenty of fastball at 93-98 MPH and averaged 94 during his major league trial. He still has the plus slider and his change-up has improved a lot compared to what it was a couple of years ago. He still needs some command refinements but his general control is pretty solid and he pitched better in the majors than the ERA implies: his FIP was 3.63. The big problem for him was Coors Field: he gave up an 8.27 ERA in 21 innings there, including three of his four homers. On the road he posted a 2.70 ERA in 20 innings with a 25/8 K/BB. On his own terms, Gray still looks like a possible rotation anchor starter to me (if we project a bit more improvement with his change-up and command), but he is a definite fly ball pitcher and does not seem well-suited to pitch in Coors Field half the time. I will stick with the Grade A-, but fantasy owners need to be very aware of the home park issue.

Gray was good in 2016, posting a 10-10 record with a 4.68 ERA in 168 innings, with a 185/59 K/BB and 3.6 fWAR. Although he missed part of 2017 with a foot injury he looked even better in ‘17, going 10-4 in 20 starts with a 3.67 ERA, 112/30 K/BB in 110 innings 3.2 fWAR.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Gray’s fastball has picked back up over the last two seasons, pushing back into the mid/upper-90s and averaging 96 now. He’s rounded out his secondary arsenal and has made adjustments to get more ground balls, his ground ball percentage going from 38% in 2014 up to 48.9% this season. This has helped him thrive even with the Coors Effect.

A couple of years ago I compared Jon Gray to Sonny Gray. They are quite dissimilar physically: Sonny is just 5-10 while Jon stands 6-4, but the career pattern (college ace who needed to make some adjustments in the minors then figured things out and lived up to his potential) may hold.