Beyond the Gray: Making Sense of Jon Gray’s Success

This emerging star's season has been far from black and white.

The Texas Rangers are one of the best teams in baseball through two months of the season. Unsurprisingly, multiple years of significant investment in free agency is paying off. But the team’s dominance has been a surprise.

Much has been made about the team’s torrid offensive output, boasting a team OPS of .801 and 15.0 offensive fWAR, trailing only the Rays in both marks. Less, however, has been made about the remarkable run their pitching staff has put together.

Much of the publicity surrounding the Rangers’ pitching staff has been related to Jacob deGrom’s health. The ace, who signed a 5-year, $185 million contract in the offseason, is out for the year after only 6 starts.

The rotation has recovered from this blow beautifully. Buoyed by Nathan Eovaldi’s dominance and Dane Dunning’s emergence as deGrom’s replacement, the Rangers’ starters still own the league’s second-best ERA mark. Another breakout starter has also emerged in the form of Jon Gray.

Gray came to Texas after the Rockies bungled the end of his 7-year tenure in Colorado. After declining to move him at the 2021 trade deadline, they let him walk in free agency to sign a very reasonable 4 year, $56 million contract in Texas. After a solid 2022, Gray has broken out in 2023.

For obvious reasons, it’s a bit challenging to statistically evaluate pitchers who call Coors Field home. To adjust for the hitter friendliness of the park, xFIP is a useful metric as it assumes a league average HR/FB rate. In parts of 9 seasons, Gray owns a very solid 3.79 xFIP. He’s consistently generated ground balls at a strong 45.8% rate and boasts a solid 9.14 K/9.

The results this year have spoken for themselves. Gray is 6-2 with a 2.32 ERA. His 0.96 WHIP is tied for second among qualified pitchers. Is this a true breakout or a fluky first half? Let’s take a look, pitch by pitch.


The Repertoire


Gray is primarily a fastball-slider pitcher, though Savant classifies a little less than half of his sliders as sweepers. He’s thrown these two pitches 78% of the time in 2023, down from 86% in 2022. The dip has given rise to his changeup, which he’s throwing 15.4% of the time, up from 9.1% a year ago. His fourth offering is a curveball that he throws at a 7.2% clip.

Gray’s fastball is averaging 95.4 MPH this season, but he can flirt with the upper nineties. It’s down a bit this season – he sat at 95.9 last year – but he’s still throwing harder than he did in Colorado. Despite the strong velocity, it’s not a great pitch. The four-seamer has generated an opponent xAVG of .270 and xwOBA of .361, both roughly league average. PLV doesn’t love it either – its 4.79 is only in the 35th percentile of four-seamers.

In terms of movement, Gray’s fastball leaves something to be desired in terms of rise; the pitch’s 7.7 inches of vertical movement is considerably below average. It’s an extremely low spinning pitch as well, sitting in the bottom 3% of spin rate. The pitch does generate a decent amount of run for a four-seamer – 6.4 inches of horizontal break – but it doesn’t miss bats. The whiff rate and CSW% for the pitch both sit below the league average.

He does have pretty good command of the pitch. Much of the utility of the four-seamer comes from his ability to throw it for a first-pitch strike at a nearly 70% clip. His F-Str% and True F-Str% are both in the top 7% in the league.

Aside from the four-seamer, Gray leans heavily on a slider/sweeper combo 35% of the time, and it’s not difficult to see why. Thus far, opponents have generated a .120 AVG against the pitches and a .172 wOBA while making hard contact at a measly 12.3% clip against the pitches. The pitches also produce an elite chase rate, inducing swings on 45,5% when they’re thrown outside the zone.

The pitches don’t move a ton – averaging 3.3 xMov and 2.1 yMov – but you wouldn’t know it looking at opponents’ inability to make meaningful contact against them. They generate whiffs at 37.2% and boast a CSW% of 24.2%, both in the top quartile of the league.

A large reason for this success is Gray’s propensity to bury the pitch glove side, diving away from righties and tying up lefties. He paints the corner frequently, as well.


Jon Gray Sliders/Sweepers


As I mentioned earlier, Gray’s changeup usage has ticked up in 2023. Like the fastball, it doesn’t spin much – in the bottom 10% of changeups – and it’s firm, averaging 88.6 MPH.

Ideally, this combination should make it hard to identify against the fastball, and the results thus far have supported this hypothesis. Opponents are hitting only .205 against the pitch with a .219 wOBA. He throws it for a strike at an excellent 66% clip and has generated a solid CSW% of 26.5%.

Unfortunately, there’s more than meets the eye here. The pitch is overperforming, as hitters have posted an xAVG of .295 against the pitch with a 27.5% hard contact rate, which sits in the bottom third of changeups. He’s not inducing ground balls at a clip you’d like to see with changeups and lives too much in the middle of the plate. He leaves it middle-middle too frequently, as well.


Jon Gray Changeups


Gray’s least frequently thrown pitch is the curveball, which is a good thing because it’s a stinker. It’s generated decent results the few times he’s thrown it this year, just a .200 AVG due to a preposterous .125 BABIP. Hitters don’t chase the pitch and only swing and miss on 3.9% of Gray’s curveballs. They make hard contact at a gaudy 45.5% clip, producing a heinous .375 xAVG and .535 xwOBA.


The Periphery


There’s obviously a lot to like about what Gray has done to this point, especially if you have him rostered. It doesn’t hurt that the Rangers have been putting him in a position to win a lot of games. There are, however, reasons for concern.

Two common metrics that help measure how lucky or unlucky a pitcher has been are BABIP against and LOB%. Gray’s BABIP against is .228, ranking in the 95th percentile. His xBABIP is .284. Runners have been stranded at an extraordinary 88.3%, a figure usually in the ballpark of 70% regardless of the pitcher. His 7.7 K/9 is well below his career mark, as is his groundball rate at only 40.1%.

Driving home the fact that Gray has overperformed is his 4.18 FIP. Among qualified starters, Gray has the worst ERA-minus-FIP mark at -1.85. To clarify, 4.18 is not a bad number and reflects his roughly average, K-, BB- and HR-rates. But it suggests Gray may not be the world-beater he has been to this point.

If you have Gray rostered, you likely didn’t enjoy reading this. If you can sell high for a haul, I think that would be a prudent move. If not, Gray will still be a very serviceable fantasy starter and should rack up a lot of wins given the run support he receives. Just don’t expect him to win the Cy Young.

Jack Connors

Jack Connors is an avid Pittsburgh sports fan. In his free time, he enjoys playing golf and the guitar, and hanging out with his dog.

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