Jon Gray's Opening Day Start Went From Memorable to Forgettable in a Hurry
Sure, the offense is going to be one of the better units in baseball again with guys like DJ LeMahieu, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story -- to name a few -- but their ultimate success will be determined by how their young starting pitching performs.
That starts with Jon Gray, who's entering his third year in the big leagues and his second full campaign. While his 4.61 ERA in 168 innings pitched in 2016 isn't exactly sparkling, he posted a 3.72 Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) to go along with a solid 9.91 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Perhaps even more important was the growth he showed from the first half to the second half and his ability to find success while pitching at Coors Field.
The young right-hander was tabbed for Colorado's first game of 2017 against the Milwaukee Brewers, and things started out great. Although the Rockies still came away with a win, Gray's outing turned from a memorable one to a learning experience he'll want to put in the past as quickly as possible.
Through four innings of work, Gray looked to be every bit of the ace Colorado hopes he can soon become. Not only did they have what appeared to be a commanding 4-0 lead, but their young hurler was cruising -- he piled up 7 strikeouts and allowed only 1 walk in 59 pitches (38 strikes).
His average fastball velocity settled into the mid-90s and touched as high as 98 miles per hour (MPH), while he showcased a 90 MPH slider and a changeup that looked impressive in spots.
Once the game reached the top of the fifth inning, FanGraphs' win probability graph showed the Rockies were a near lock to win, which can be seen below.
Unfortunately, you can also see when the wheels fell off, leading these two teams to go on a bit of a roller coaster ride before determining a winner.
The first five Brewers reached base to start the bottom of the fifth (two singles, two doubles, one walk), and that was all manager Bud Black cared to see. Gray helped the Rockies mount a win probability of about 90% entering the frame, but it collapsed to below 50% by the time his skipper came out to get him -- something he wouldn't have fathomed just a few moments before.
And instead of a sparkling stat line to start the season, Gray's final line settled in at 5 runs on 6 hits, 2 walks and 7 strikeouts in 4-plus innings pitched. His 2.64 SIERA looks great, but his 11.25 ERA wasn't as lovely. What happened?
Black felt it was some bad location, while Gray felt it was a change in his gameplan that didn't pan out. The right-hander stated he was attempting to get some ground balls, but that didn't work very well.
Through his first 208.2 career innings entering this season, he produced ground-ball rates of 42.4% in 2015 and 43.5% in 2016. He didn't produce anything out of the ordinary in his first start (40.0% ground-ball rate), but his line-drive rate checked in at 50.0% while his fly-ball rate was just 10.0%.
Obviously, a four-inning sample size can't be used to draw any actual conclusions, but it'd probably be helpful to continue mixing in his curveball, which he threw 5.6% of the time on Monday (11.0% in 2016). With a heater like his that lives near triple digits, it's never a bad idea to change the eye level of hitters with a hook that has an average velocity just below 80 MPH (79.0 on Monday).
Still a Learning Process
Gray has a ton of talent and the potential to be the Rockies' ace they so desperately need at the top of their rotation. However, this is a good reminder that while he's flashed some solid production, he still has a lot of learning to do and will go through growing pains such as this.
With Monday's appearance, he's accumulated just 212.2 innings in the big leagues. Poor pitch location and sequencing seemed to be the main reasons behind a solid outing completely falling apart, and it is something he's vowed to learned from.
As with most pitchers who play for Colorado, there are going to be peaks and valleys in production along the way. It's up to Gray to limit the valleys as much as he can while focusing on prolonging those peaks, like he did at points last year. The fifth inning wasn't great, but it can act as a great lesson. Plus, those first four innings looked incredibly good.
The Rockies will go as far as their pitching can carry them in 2017, and Gray will be shouldering the responsibility for setting the tone. His first-ever Opening Day start wasn't as memorable as he thought it might be, but there still were lots of positives to take from it moving forward.