On the eve of July, the month of definitive do or die competition, the Colorado Rockies optioned their opening day starter, Jon Gray, to Triple A Baseball, putting a temporary halt to a season which should have been superlative. Gray was positioned to be the Rockies Ace pitcher, the de facto strike out machine. He did so, posting an MLB fifth best 11.64 K/9 with a WAR of 2.5, breaking most of his projections.
Yet, Gray’s demise and optioning is a reminder that a pitcher’s job, in the end, is to play the averages and get out of situational disaster to end innings with the formidable zero still on the board. Gray was pitiful at cleaning up the base path with a 63.1 percent left-on-base percentage. His 5.77 ERA was slowly flowing up since the beginning of the season. His MLB best 14.33 K/9 for June was met with only 27 innings of pitching, 62.2 percent left-on-base, and an ERA of six. Troubled outings and difficulty finishing starts were trending, not the outlier.
There is an odd note, however, on Gray’s optioning to Triple A. German Marquez, who finished eight innings of one-run pitching in a 3-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers last night, has even more developmental problems. Marquez had an even more troublesome June analytically, with an equal 62.2 percent left-on-base, an era of 6.75, a FIP of 5.26, and nine home runs allowed. Hypothetically, there are two reasons the Rockies have decided to option their ‘best’ pitcher instead of the more developmental Marquez. First, the Rockies may be admitting they are going to be sellers at the deadline, and this is the beginning to positioning certain pitchers for sale. However, this would be a very un-Rockies tact to take for a team who has been stubbornly boisterous about ‘competing’. Second, Gray may be more fixable than Marquez, with a quick stint in AAA allowing him to resolve fundamental mechanics away from the stench of scrutiny. (This hypothetical is what the remnant of the article will focus on). Or, it may be a mix of both hypotheticals, with time telling which carries more weight in organizational decisions.
Optioning Gray becomes a matter of establishing finishing touches, helping him to make his strikeouts effective. In a matter of plate discipline, batters are attacking zone pitches 5.8 percent more than last season, back to a career average of 65.8 percent. Yet, he is throwing less to the zone (43.8 percent) while batters are making drastically less contact (80 percent in 2017, 70.2 percent in 2018). All those numbers lead up to a compelling 13.2 swinging-strike percentage and the conclusion Gray ought to be even better than last season when he finished with a 3.67 ERA and a 3.18 FIP.
The pitch arsenal has seen some slight edits, with a cut to fastballs and a rise in slider percentage of five both ways. Velocity has remained mechanically the same, thus, batters should not be exploiting his pitches at this rate. The problem, however, becomes that batters are exploiting this edit by forcing perceptual chaos on Gray, in which he doubles down on throwing distinct pitches with little movement variation.
Gray’s slider placement, on a meta level, has not changed, nor has the contact basis. However, what has dramatically shifted between 2017 and 2018 is how batters are making contact. In 2017, there were three zones which batters had near .100 averages against Gray; in 2018, that rating has gone up to seven, with an egregious .250 to double down on the pain. Strategically, Gray attacks the shadow of the zone with his slider when ahead and moves up to inside the zone when behind. It is not so much a matter of controlling placement but controlling the count and situation.
A false sense of security in the slider has created situational derisiveness on Gray’s fastball. Gray has developed a distinction with his slider as his ‘shadow’ pitch (3.3 PITCHf/x movement rating, down from 5.4) while his fastball is his ‘heart’ pitch (8.7 PITCHf/x movement, down from 11.3). Thus, when in trouble, Gray’s intents become clear, and his fastballs have been straying more inside. The brevity in fastball movement has lead to batters grouping his fastball and hitting at a .172 average from the middle to right, lower portion of the zone.
In short, Gray’s problems result not from mechanical duplicity, but from strategic duplicity – a loss of confidence. Since Gray’s goal is to hit strikeouts, when bases are empty, he has a 13.84 K/9 rating; when runners are on, his K/9 falls to 8.61 while BB/9 raise to 4.19. With runners in scoring position, his FIP takes a jump to 4.94.
Situationally, the flop begins when situational leverage ebbs from low to medium with 96.6 and 61.8 percent left-on-base, respectively. Unfortunately for Gray, his troubles begin regardless of time through the order. He has allowed 21,19, and 21 runs through the first, second, and third time through the order, respectively. The underlying tact of how batters destroy Gray can be seen in slugging at a .390, .485, and .527 percentage through the order.
What can Gray fix in Triple A baseball? In two words, strategical variety. Despite being able to land more strikeouts, Gray has become less effective by staying stuck in a rut, unable (or unwilling) to hide his slider and fastball with movement. Situational aptitude and learning how to pattern his pitches will be essential to turning Gray into an effective strikeout machine.