F/F SPOTLIGHT: Jon Gray

Few pitchers have been more frustrating to their fantasy owners over the last several seasons than Jon Gray (RHP, COL). Coming into the 2019 season, he had managed a sub-4 ERA in just one season. One analyst has even profiled him as a good buy-low target 23 times since the beginning of 2018. While Gray has looked like an upper-tier starting pitcher at times, his inconsistency has kept owners away:

Year  ERA   WHIP
====  ====  ====
2015  5.53  1.62
2016  4.61  1.26
2017  3.67  1.30
2018  5.12  1.35

It’s hard to roster a pitcher who has been a chronic threat to post a 5.00 ERA. But it’s also hard to dismiss Gray’s talent, or the fact that he has posted a 3.75 ERA or better in three separate months so far in 2019:

2019  ERA   WHIP
====  ====  ====
Apr   3.56  1.35
May   5.65  1.43
Jun   2.65  1.37
Jul   3.75  1.17

In order to understand if Gray finally is making sustainable gains to reach his upside, let’s see how he got to this point.
 

Background

Gray was drafted by the Rockies with the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 MLB draft, just behind Mark Appel and Kris Bryant. Clint Frazier, Colin Moran, and Austin Meadows also were Top 10 picks from that draft.

As a college pitcher out of the University of Oklahoma with a premium fastball/slider combo, the thought was that Gray could move quickly through the minor leagues. His mid-90s velocity, wipeout slider, and ability to keep the ball on the ground all profiled him as a pitcher with rotation anchor upside.
 

Minor League History

Gray’s upside was evident early on in his professional career. It contributed to COL pushing him to Double-A with less than 40 innings of experience under his belt:

Year  Age  Level     IP   ERA   WHIP  Ctl  Dom     
====  ===  ========  ===  ====  ====  ===  ====
2013   21    Rookie   13  4.05  1.27  1.4  10.1
2013   21    High-A   24  0.75  0.67  2.3  13.5
2014   22  Double-A  124  3.91  1.19  3.0   8.2
2015   23  Triple-A  114  4.33  1.49  3.2   8.7
2016   24    High-A    8  2.08  1.27  3.1  11.4
2017   25    High-A    4  0.00  1.25  2.3  11.3
2017   25  Triple-A    9  1.93  1.61  4.8  12.5
2018   26  Triple-A   10  3.38  1.03  3.4  11.0

Gray’s stats and skills got worse at Double-A, but he was still pushed to Triple-A the following season. Even though his stats took a nosedive at that level, he was promoted to the majors in August 2015.
 

MLB History

Gray’s debut with the Rockies late in 2015 was a continuation of the warning signs he showed in the high minors. He posted a 5.53 ERA and 1.62 WHIP in 41 IP with COL, marks that were inflated by a 39% H%. His above-average 96 BPV was an indication of his high ceiling.

In fact, Gray’s skills went from good to very good during his first four seasons in the majors:

Year  BPV
====  ===
2015   96
2016  115
2017  125
2018  124

Gray’s skills have given him a near-3.60 xERA over each of the past three seasons. But he has never been able to convert those skills into consistent results. Let’s find out why.
 

Hit Rate

Gray's hit rate has been worse than MLB norms over each of his seasons:

Year  Gray’s H%  All SP H%
====  =========  =========
2015        39%     30%
2016        32%     31%
2017        34%     30%
2018        34%     30%

The normal expectation is to expect regression in a SP’s hit rate when it is far from the MLB norm of 30%. But when a pitcher repeatedly displays an aberrant hit rate, we need to look for other explanations.
 

MLB Statcast Metrics

Major League Baseball’s Statcast tool provides us with new ways to explain why a pitcher’s results aren’t adhering to our normal toolbox. Statcast metrics like exit velocity, launch angle, barrel%, and hard hit% can help us do this. For example, a pitcher’s hit rate might be inflated because he is giving up a lot of hard contact.

Let’s start with exit velocity:

Year  Exit Velocity  MLB Norm
====  =============  ========
2015       87.3        87.4
2016       86.9        87.7
2017       85.3        86.6
2018       88.9        87.7

The exit velocity that Gray has given up has been at or below MLB norms in each season except last year.

A pitcher’s hard hit percentage is a measure of 95+ mph batted balls that they have allowed. Is Gray’s issue that the high exit velocities he allows are at the highest end of the exit velocity spectrum?

Year  Hard Hit%  MLB Norm
====  =========  ========
2015    40.3%     33.1%
2016    34.7%     34.2%
2017    31.7%     33.1%
2018    37.9%     35.5%

Gray’s hard hit% was above MLB averages his first couple of seasons before dropping well below that level in 2017. Interestingly, the 3.67 ERA he posted in 2017 was the best of his career. But his hard hit% soared again in 2018, as did his ERA.
 

Key Takeaways

  • The two seasons that Gray posted a 5+ ERA were the two where his hard hit percentage was significantly above MLB norms (2015, 2018)
  • Gray’s four-seam fastball has very little spin, especially compared to other pitchers; see 2017 and 2018 Statcast relative rankings below:

The Coors Effect

It seems logical that some of Jon Gray’s volatility can be attributed to his hitter-friendly home park. Does that hypothesis play out?

Year  ERA Home  ERA Road
====  ========  ========
2015    8.27      2.70
2016    4.30      4.91
2017    3.13      4.06
2018    4.91      5.34

Key Takeaways

  • Other than a small sample size blowup in Gray’s rookie season, his ERA has been significantly better at home than on the road in every season
  • Gray fits the profile of a pitcher that could succeed in Coors Field, as he throws hard and keeps the ball on the ground
     

Lefty/Righty Splits

While we can’t blame Coors Field for Gray’s struggles, perhaps he has wide lefty-righty splits that are making him prone to blow-ups:

Year  Cmd vL  Cmd vR
====  ======  ======
2015     2.3     3.8
2016     3.5     2.8
2017     2.5     6.6
2018     3.2     4.0

Key Takeaways

  • Gray has posted a 2.5+ Cmd against lefties in each of his three full MLB seasons
  • His LH/RH OPS splits have been nearly identical in all but one of those seasons
     

Pitch Mix

Let’s take a closer look at Gray’s pitch usage and the effectiveness of his pitches to see if those areas might help explain Gray’s chronic volatility.

Year  Pitch               Frequency  SwK%   Ball%
====  ==================  =========  =====  =====
2015  Four-Seam Fastball        64%   6.8%    37%
2015  Slider                    19%  22.8%    37%
2015  Change-up                  17%   9.4%    37%
-------------------------------------------------
2016  Four-Seam Fastball        55%   6.6%    37%
2016  Slider                    27%  24.5%    30%
2016  Curveball                 11%   9.8%    44%
2016  Change-up                   1%  12.4%    28%
-------------------------------------------------
2017  Four-Seam Fastball        57%   4.2%    35%
2017  Slider                    28%  16.7%    34%
2017  Curveball                 14%  12.1%    41%
2017  Change-up                   1%  18.2%    50%
-------------------------------------------------
2018  Four-Seam Fastball        50%   6.4%    37%
2018  Slider                    34%  19.1%    32%
2018  Curveball                 15%  18.1%    40%
2018  Change-up                   2%  10.6%    51%
-------------------------------------------------

When Gray’s slider is working well for him, he can be dominant:

 

 

Key Takeaways

  • Gray has been a two-pitch pitcher for his entire career
  • He throws his fastball or slider 80-85% of the time
  • He struggles to throw his four-seam fastball for strikes at a high clip, and it’s a pitch that doesn’t miss many bats because it has very little spin (see Statcast metrics)
  • His slider clearly is his best pitch, as it generates whiffs at a high rate and he can throw it for strikes
     

Command Sub-Indicators

Gray repeatedly has missed bats (SwK%), reached 0-1 counts (FpK%), and kept the ball over the plate (Ball%) at rates much higher than MLB norms:

Year  Gray’s SwK%  All SP SwK%
====  ===========  ===========
2015     10.1%         9.3%
2016     12.1%         9.5%
2017      8.8%         9.6%
2018     12.3%         9.6%

Year  Gray’s FpK%  All SP FpK%
====  ===========  ===========
2015     58.4%        61.2%
2016     62.4%        60.7%
2017     61.6%        60.8%
2018     63.3%        60.8%

Year  Gray’s Ball%  All SP Ball%
====  ===========  ============
2015       37%          36%
2016       35%          36%
2017       35%          37%
2018       36%          37%

Key Takeaways

  • Gray consistently gets rates of swinging strikes, first-pitch strikes, and ball percentages at levels above SP norms, especially in terms of swinging strikes
  • But he does so using his slider, as that is the only pitch he can count on
     

Time Through Order

Some pitchers tend to get better the more times they go through lineups during a game. Most do not, and some really struggle to make adjustments as the game goes along. Is Gray a pitcher that looks good early in games but is more prone to blow-ups the more hitters see him?

Year  Time Through Lineup  ERA   WHIP  BPV
====  ===================  ====  ====  ====
2016           1st          5.31  1.40  123
2016           2nd          2.24  1.15  127
2016           3rd          7.50  1.26   87
-------------------------------------------
2017           1st          1.71  0.85  155
2017           2nd          4.93  1.70  103
2017           3rd          5.55  1.56  100
-------------------------------------------
2018           1st          4.30  1.21  140
2018           2nd          6.02  1.48   98
2018           3rd          5.31  1.42  130

Key Takeaways

  • There tends to be an erosion in Gray’s in-game skills the more times he goes through lineups, but that erosion is neither consistent nor is it enough to offer a meaningful explanation for Gray’s struggles
     

Plate Discipline Metrics

Another helpful exercise when analyzing starting pitchers is to look at their plate discipline metrics. First, the percentage of times that a batter swings at Gray’s pitches when they are inside the strike zone:

Year  Z-Swing%  MLB Norm
====  ========  ========
2015    63.9%     66.5%
2016    66.4%     66.2%
2017    58.8%     66.3%
2018    61.8%     66.8%

The level of contact that batters make at pitches within the strike zone can be a telling metric too, as pitchers with good stuff often are hard to hit even when their pitches are over the plate:

Year  Z-Contact%  MLB Norm
====  ==========  ========
2015     87.9%      87.7%
2016     87.5%      87.2%
2017     88.7%      86.5%
2018     84.8%      86.3%

Conversely, here is the rate at which batters chase at pitches that Gray throws outside of the strike zone:

Year  O-Swing%  MLB Norm
====  ========  ========
2015    27.2%     30.5%
2016    31.9%     30.1%
2017    29.3%     29.5%
2018    29.2%     30.8%

And the rate at which batters make contact on those pitches:

Year  O-Contact%  MLB Norm
====  ==========  ========
2015     52.3%      66.6%
2016     50.8%      65.4%
2017     62.1%      64.7%
2018     46.6%      64.3%

Key Takeaways

  • Batters consistently struggle to make contact on pitches that Gray throws outside the strike zone
  • They don’t show a similar relative weakness on pitches inside the strike zone
     

Heat maps

A visual representation of Gray’s weaknesses also can be helpful. Let's take a look at his heat maps for contact% and isolated power (ISO) per pitch:

Key Takeaways

  • Batters make contact at a very high rate against pitches thrown by Gray in the middle of the strike zone, an indication that Gray’s limited arsenal and lack of movement on his fastball makes him prone to being hit hard
  • Batters show high rates of ISO power against pitches over the heart of the plate, as well as with inside pitches to RH batters
  • They struggle to hit for any kind of power at pitches outside of the strike zone

Pre-2019 Takeaways

  • Gray was rushed to the majors before needing to develop a reliable third pitch
  • A chronically high hit rate has kept Gray’s stats worse than his skills suggest they should be
  • Gray’s limited pitch mix has held him back
    • He relies heavily on his four-seam fastball, but even though it has good velocity, it consistently has one of the lowest spin rates in the game
    • His slider is the driver behind his long history of good command, but a lack of other effective pitches leaves him vulnerable to batters sitting on his slider
  • During Gray’s worst seasons, he has given up hard contact at a very high rate
  • Batters make tons of contact and show a lot of power on pitches that Gray throws over the heart of the plate
     

2019 Results

As of mid-July, Gray’s full line of stats and skills is as follows:

Year  IP   ERA   WHIP  Ctl  Dom   HR/9  GB%  SwK%   FpK%  Ball%  BPV
====  ===  ====  ====  ===  ====  ====  ===  =====  ====  =====  ===
2019  115  3.83  1.33  3.3   9.5   1.2  49%  12.1%   65%    35%  109

Gray continues to show high rates of swinging and first-pitch strikes, which is helping him maintain good command. He also continues to keep the ball on the ground at a high rate. Most importantly, Gray’s 32% H% is the lowest of his career.

Let's revisit Gray's main areas of weaknesses to see if he has made any real gains that would allow him to sustain his more favorable hit rate:

Year  Pitch               Frequency  SwK%   Ball%
====  ==================  =========  =====  =====
2015  Four-Seam Fastball        64%   6.8%    37%
2015  Slider                    19%  22.8%    37%
2015  Change-up                 17%   9.4%    37%
-------------------------------------------------
2016  Four-Seam Fastball        55%   6.6%    37%
2016  Slider                    27%  24.5%    30%
2016  Curveball                 11%   9.8%    44%
2016  Change-up                  1%  12.4%    28%
-------------------------------------------------
2017  Four-Seam Fastball        57%   4.2%    35%
2017  Slider                    28%  16.7%    34%
2017  Curveball                 14%  12.1%    41%
2017  Change-up                  1%  18.2%    50%
-------------------------------------------------
2018  Four-Seam Fastball        50%   6.4%    37%
2018  Slider                    34%  19.1%    32%
2018  Curveball                 15%  18.1%    40%
2018  Change-up                  2%  10.6%    51%
-------------------------------------------------
2019  Four-Seam Fastball        53%   6.8%    34%   
2019  Slider                    33%  21.7%    32%
2019  Curveball                 11%  12.5%    47%
2019  Change-up                  3%   2.3%    48%

Key Takeaways

  • Gray’s pitch usage is nearly identical to what we’ve seen from him in the past
  • He can only throw two pitches over the plate—fastball and slider
  • His only strikeout pitch remains his slider
     

Statcast Metrics

Key Takeaways

  • Gray is giving up more hard contact (42.6% hard hit%) than we’ve ever seen from him
  • His 89.2 mph average exit velocity also is a career-worst mark
  • Those two issues make it unlikely he will be able to sustain significant improvement in his hit rate
     

Heat maps

Key Takeaways

  • Batters continue to make contact at a very high rate against pitches thrown by Gray over the plate; he struggles to fool batters when his pitches land over the plate
     

Conclusions

Jon Gray has the goods to become an upper-rotation pitcher. That upside is reflected in his four consecutive 100+ BPV seasons. But the volatility that has held him back isn’t on the verge of disappearing for the following reasons:

  • He can only throw two pitches for strikes
  • While his fastball has good velocity, it has very little spin and doesn’t miss many bats
  • Gray’s slider is a true put-away pitch, but it’s his only pitch that generates whiffs
  • Gray is allowing hard contact at a very high rate so far in 2019, which puts his improved 32% H% very much at risk

Until Gray adds a reliable third pitch that can keep batters from sitting on one of his two primary offerings, he will continue to be prone to the blow-ups that have obscured his rotation anchor upside. This analyst's recommendation to buy low on him for the 24th time since the start of last year will have to wait.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.