Everyone has their morning routine.
Mine normally start around 5:30. I begin my day by feeding my cats (they’re the reason I’m up at 5:30), making myself a cup of coffee, and opening up my web browser to the Rays tab on MLB Trade Rumors. Yesterday my day started with something interesting, as the first thing I saw was this headline:
What a roller coaster of emotions. A conjunction would’ve been nice. But even with the excitement of a Noah Syndergaard acquisition rug pulled out from under me (we also wrote about it here), I decided to read the article anyway, and another name stuck out to me:
Colorado Rockies pitcher Jon Gray.
In the article, the author cited he and Michael Fulmer in the same breath as guys who ‘had poor seasons’ in 2018. He would be the quintessential buy-low candidate, a total Rays move. But with all of the information we have in this era, it has become harder than ever to find a solid bounce-back candidate.
With that said, Gray is a solid bounce-back candidate.
Gray was selected third overall in the 2013 amateur draft out of the University of Oklahoma. A few notables taken after him in that round include Clint Frazier (5th, Indians), Colin Moran, (6th, Marlins) and the Rays’ own Austin Meadows (9th, Pirates). After spending only one full season in the minors, he made his debut for the Rockies in 2015. By 2016, he was in the show to stay, giving them 168 slightly above average innings. Despite a mediocre looking 4.61 ERA, his 26.0 K%, 3.60 FIP and 3.61 xFIP suggested a step forward.
And that’s exactly what happened.
Gray enjoyed breakout success in 2017, pitching 110.1 innings of 3.67 ERA ball, registering 38% better than the league average after run scoring and park adjustments. He allowed less than one home run per 9, highly impressive in the hitters paradise that we know is Coors Field. His peripherals showed it was no fluke—his ability to limit home runs and walks along with his high strikeout rate netted him a FIP 41% better than the league average. When it was all said and done, it was he who the Rockies gave the ball to face the Diamondbacks in the Wild Card game. It appeared he was to lead the staff to another successful run in 2018 and beyond.
But that’s not what happened.
Going by his traditional stats, you might say Gray had an abysmal year. Poised to take yet another step forward in ‘18, he instead pitched to a pretty yucky 5.12 ERA. Which, even by Coors standards, is pretty high. It even got him sent down in Late June. His four-seam fastball velocity was down a tick at 96.50 from 96.28 in ‘17, but other than that, his pitch usage and movements remained largely the same (though he relied on his slider a bit more this year over last).
Take a looksee here:
So he hasn’t lost stuff. But there may be another issue, pitch tunneling. Al Leiter does a great job explaining it here:
When pitchers throw different pitches from different arm angles, hitters, coaches and video rooms will all pick that up. The topic of tipping pitches is all the rage right now. But despite all that, Gray’s strikeout and walk rates remained largely unchanged. So if tunneling is the issue, it’s marginal at best.
There was one other thing Leiter cited in his analysis: luck. Let’s dig into that.
Gray was almost a whole run worse in the first half (5.44 ERA) of ‘18 than in the second half (4.68) while giving up nearly identical wOBAs (.322 and .323) in those respective splits. His BABIP was an astronomical .376 before the break, following up with a .250 BABIP after the break.
His FIP and xFIP fluctuated throughout the year, particularly when he showed signs of wear toward the end of the season, but finished ‘18 with a 4.08 (still good, but not great) and 3.47 (just a hair worse than his 3.45 mark in ‘17), respectively. Because of that, his FanGraphs WAR (2.7) portrays him in a much better light than his Baseball-Reference WAR (1.7). Despite a “down” year, Gray remains a quality major league pitcher
What makes him a good fit for the Rays.
A number of factors contributed to Grays hard luck year. It could’ve been his poor pitch tunneling, the spacious Coors outfield, Charlie Blackmon’s center field play (which is not good by nearly every metric), or a combination of all three.
If you believe that tunneling is not the issue, at least not the main one (as I do), then you have to believe that Gray will benefit largely from a move to Tampa Bay. Any given combination of Kiermaier, Pham, Meadows or Heredia is vastly better than what he has in Denver.
Additionally, the Rays and Cash maintain that their ideal rotation includes three starters and two bullpen days. With Snell and Glasnow appearing the only locks, they could add Gray as the third. He is in his first year of arbitration eligibility, meaning he has at least three more years of team control, and will only be entering his age 27 season. Slotting him into that mix makes them better both now and later
While they could instead go with a slew of internal options for that third slot—Yarbrough, Chirinos, Faria, Font, Beeks etc—it seems the Rays want to create some separation from their true starters to their “bulk innings guys,” thus making more sense to get a legitimate starter, rather than hope one of the others steps up. Which could happen, but would be a gamble for a team looking to improve upon a 90-win season.
And Jon Gray is a legitimate starter.