Jon Gray made two starts in the minor leagues on July 3 and 8. His first was ok (6 IP, 2 ER, o BB, 6 K) and his second wasn’t great (4 2/3 IP, 2 ER, 4 BB, 7 K). Craig Edwards of Fangraphs wrote a great column on whether Gray deserved his demotion. His premise highlighted the massive discrepancy between Gray’s ERA and FIP, something brought on by a mix Coors Field and poor luck.
My affinity for statistics often wins out over “gut feelings” and other intangible factors, but I’ve also never been in the shoes of a baseball operations employee staring at seven consecutive starts of more than three earned runs and considered how confident I was in the numbers winning out. Particularly odd about the demotion is the seven-inning, 12-strikeout performance Gray twirled against the Marlins after his stretch of misery. He followed this rebound up with another poor outing on August 28 and then was demoted. If anything, I would’ve been encouraged Gray’s dominance of the Marlins and more willing to tolerate a poor performance similar to his prior stretch. The Rockies were not that tolerable.
Most of us fail to retrospectively criticize the move given the results since Gray returned to Colorado. He spun an eight-inning gem Sunday, with eight strikeouts and only six baserunners to continue his run of success. Gray went seven or more innings four times during the first three months of the season and has matched that total in the four starts since his return.
Maybe Gray needed some time with the Isotopes’ mascot, Orbit, who looks like an orange dog knock-off of the Philly Phanatic? More than likely, Gray just needed to tinker with something. Let’s unsuccessfully speculate on what.
The former Oklahoma University pitcher works with two breaking balls (slider, curveball) and has been lessening his fastball usage steadily over the last four seasons. We can probably assume the demotion wasn’t to tinker with usage, as before and after his minor league stint doesn’t show much difference in how he is attacking hitters. There might be a slight tick up in slider usage to right-handed hitters (37 percent before to 41 percent after), but that feels like a natural deviation from Gray’s average usage over a legitimate attempt to spin more sliders.
Speaking of Gray’s slider and spin, since his return we’re seeing a little bit more spin on the pitch – 2155 rpm to 2237 rpm. It’s a small change, but it does fall in line with his spin rate on the pitch from last season. In tandem with this small uptick in spin rate, we’re also seeing more horizontal movement according to Brooks Baseball. This comes after the pitch stayed consistent for most of the season prior to his minor league stint. Is this leading to all of his success? The evidence exists, but I’m not sure how convincing it is.
Gray has been burying his slider better as well since returning (before, after). This makes me wonder if something mechanically changed with Gray in Albuquerque. However, Brooks Baseball dampens that speculation.
While Gray has in fact been trending in different directions with his release point on pitches since the beginning of the season, we don’t have strong evidence that his minor league stint had a major influence on this characteristic (vertical, horizontal). May is the outlier horizontally, where Gray’s release point changed by almost half a foot before correcting itself. Vertically, Gray has been on a trend upward since the beginning of the season, but the net effect is only about six inches over an extended amount of time.
All in all, not much has changed to the naked eye (and the statistical one) since Gray was sent down to Triple-A. Maybe there was something off mechanically that isn’t showing up in Gray’s arm slot data. It feels unlikely, but Aaron Nola tinkered with his windup timing and it didn’t show up in stats specifically outside of increased levels of success (which, I’ll admit, isn’t a bad way for something to show up).
The Rockies didn’t give extensive reasoning as to why Gray was being demoted either from my digging. Bud Black said to The Athletic, “Talking to Jon, there are times he feels uncomfortable when he’s out there.” This doesn’t seem actionable, but I’ve already disclosed that I am not a Rockies decision maker. What The Athletic did point out in that column was Gray’s poor performance in high-leverage situations. Again, this is something that doesn’t seem actionable outside of mental alteration of some kind to mitigate pressure’s effect his performance.
I really do find the Gray demotion interesting because of the rarity of a player being sent to the minors, returning with success, and the lack of an “ah ha!” statistical alteration. The Rockies are weird. Jon Gray is weird. Baseball is weird.
I remember looking at Grey’s rest-of-season projections upon his demotion and thinking he was a fantastic buy low based on the sole fact the Player Rater wasn’t wavering because one of it’s key pitcher considerations comes from FIP. (On the contrary, this is one of the reasons why it always like Michael Pineda, and we know where that saga has ended up.)
Gray is a top-120 player at the moment, not far away in projections from Blake Snell, which would have been blasphemy a few weeks ago. We have him ranked as an SP3 and a player who should be owned in all leagues. Even if he continues to sparingly post outings where Coors Field catches up to him, his peripherals will always look good and it’s hard not to like his two effective breaking balls. Live and die by Jon Gray.
If you’ve dropped Lance on Twitter, I encourage you to pick him back up too! @LanceBrozdow