It seems like every time I bring up how excited I am about Jonathan Gray as a fantasy prospect, the first thing I hear in response is some variation of, “Yeah, but what about Coors Field?” It’s a fair question, to be certain. While the Coors Field effect has been lessened since the installation of the humidor, it is still a very hitter-friendly park. Part of the explanation for this is that the thin air in Denver decreases the spin on breaking balls, thus making them easier to square up as a hitter.
But let’s back up a bit and talk about Jonathan Gray first, shall we? I live in Oklahoma, and was lucky enough to see the No. 3-overall pick pitch more times than I could count when he was in college at the University of Oklahoma. First and foremost, Gray has one of the absolute best fastballs in the minors right now. He has huge velocity, sitting comfortably in the 95-97 mph range and dialing up triple-digits when he reaches back for a little more. The pitch has explosive late arm-side movement as well, making it incredibly difficult to barrel up for right-handed hitters. I have seen him crank it up all the way to 101 mph, and it isn’t unusual at all to see him unleash one in the upper-90s in the 9th inning. When scouts talk about an 80-grade pitch, this is what they’re talking about.
I don’t have a problem putting an 80 grade on Gray’s fastball, much like I’m not afraid to label his slider as a 65/70 offering. Simply put, it’s the dominant out pitch that major-league pitchers need to rack up the strikeouts. The break on his slider is so sharp and so late that it is absolutely devastating, especially to right-handed hitters. So now we’re talking about a guy with two plus-plus pitches, and pitchers like that don’t come around every day.
The biggest knock on Gray is that his change-up isn’t yet good enough to be a consistent major-league offering, and I completely agree. Even against college competition, it was just okay, and he’ll likely need to develop his change into at least an average pitch to be an elite major-league starter. From what I’ve seen, it’s not there yet, but that certainly doesn’t mean it won’t be a major-league offering in due time.
At 6’4″, 255 pounds, Gray isn’t what you’d call particularly athletic, but his body is the type that can absorb high pitch counts and log 200+ innings on a regular basis. Last season, he hurled 166 innings between college and the minors. As for his performance, it was about what one would expect. In four starts in the Rookie-level Pioneer League and five in the High-A Cal League, two of the minors’ most hitter-friendly leagues, he compiled a 1.93 ERA with a 0.88 WHIP and a 51:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 37.1 innings.
I believe that within the next few years, Gray could be one of the top pitchers in baseball, even accounting for the fact that he’ll be making half of his starts at Coors. My reasoning for this is that, of all off-speed pitches, sliders are the least-affected by the thin air in Colorado. This study by Dan Rozenson of Baseball Prospectus shows that the lateral movement of sliders isn’t affected nearly as much at Coors Field as the downward spin on curveballs, sinkers and change-ups. The Rockies’ plan of signing sinkerballers like Mike Hampton was actually one of the worst strategies they could have taken because the downward motion of the pitch is lessened in the thin air.
The type of pitcher who can excel in this atmosphere is one with a power fastball/slider combo, which is exactly what Jonathan Gray has to offer. 100+ mph plays anywhere, and his wipeout slider shouldn’t suffer too much in his home ballpark. On a mental level, this gives Gray the advantage of not having to significantly alter his approach to pitching at home as opposed to on the road, which should give his development at the major-league level a boost over previous Rockies pitching prospects. Physically, it gives him the chance to be a dominating force in the majors for years to come, regardless of park effects.
In many dynasty leagues, owners will be afraid to draft Gray as highly as he should be simply because of the team he plays for. I will not be one of those owners, and neither should you.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.