Just miles from New York City, Josiah Gray grew up in one of the toniest suburbs in America in Westchester County. It does not mean that he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth or had it easy. He lost his father to cancer just after he was drafted in the second round of the 2018 draft. While his family and friends from New York made the trek to Queens, New York to see him pitch last night, one seat was noticeably empty where his father was not able to physically be there. That emptiness never leaves when a loved one departs too soon. Last night his father was definitely with him in that celestial way when he delivered a pitch that might have reshaped his pitching life.
Miles from Broadway, Gray brought down the curtain on the hometown Mets. What a performance by the Nats’ pitcher who arguably had the best start of his career. Sure, he had that 10 K game on August 7 of 2021 just after he was traded in that blockbuster Max Scherzer/Trea Turner deal with the Dodgers that brought Gray and his battery mate Keibert Ruiz to D.C., but this game was masterful. The Braves did not have a book on Gray in their first meeting, but the Mets had a book on Gray last night — and he clearly changed the words.
The Nats’ righty threw 21.98% of his pitches for swing & miss strikes and finished with 9K in 6.0 innings of work for a 13.5 K/9 in a scoreless outing gem. If you go by Bill James’ GameScore rankings, Gray’s highest was from June 18th of last year against the Phillies at a 71.0, but last night he edged that mark for a new career best of 72.0. If anything, Gray was BABIP unlucky giving up four hits in this game. He had Mets batters off-balance all night including the homer king, Pete Alonso, who Gray K’d twice in the game.
Whatever pitches Gray was throwing fooled the AI generated pitch types at Statcast. This is where a trained eye knew that it was not what Statcast classified it as. That pitch had downward action like a hard slider. The computer called his best pitch of the night in a 3-2 count with two outs and bases loaded a “cutter”, but it was in fact a slider that was thrown firmer for late break, down and away, from Starling Marte for the pitch of the year for Gray. It was gutsy for sure. If Marte ID’d the pitch, he doesn’t swing and walks in a run, and then Gray would have had to pitch to Francisco Lindor with bases loaded. Instead, inning over, as Marte could only shake his head. He thought he saw fastball on the outer third of the plate until the ball danced out of the zone.
Folks, that is pitching. If Gray can keep doing what he did last night with improvising on his pitches to give them a different look late in the game, he will have taken a page from Shohei Ohtani‘s book of tricks. Hey, pitching is the art of deception like a great magician up on the stage. Gray put on quite the show for his family and friends in attendance.
It is the tale of two stories for Gray. In his first start of this season, he would have been booed off of the stage if he was a comedian. He bombed and got bombed giving up three homers and looking lost. That new cutter didn’t cut enough — and it looked gray and ominous for Gray who had a well-earned reputation of giving up the long balls and won that ignominious crown in 2022. So was anyone surprised when he gave up three dingers to start his season? But since his first start, he lowered his 9.00 ERA to a team best 2.93. Who woulda thunk it?
Baseball is a funny game. You pitch great and watch your team lose your first four starts because you got zero runs of support which is like the farmer who grows the prized melons only to see them spoil when the truckers can’t get them to market in time and the fruits of your labor just spoiled. Well last night, Gray received five runs of support compared to zero in his first four starts, and his batters delivered, early and often in this game.
That April fool’s start is sure looking like the outlier even though we were being cautiously optimistic about starts 2-to-4 which seemed to have a good bit of luck when you consider Gray had a 2.16 ERA in those three starts but a rather pedestrian 4.29 FIP that suggests he was luckier than great. After last year’s 5.02 ERA for the full season, you had to wonder what we would see from Gray since his 4-seam fastball and 38 homers surrendered and 66 walks in 2022 were the worst in baseball. Gray developed a 2-seam sinker late in 2022 that actually worked. But then we learned in the offseason that he kind of put the 2-seamer aside for this newly developed cutter that he learned from teammate Erasmo Ramirez.
Gray admitted in the offseason that at the Major League level the 4-seam fastball wasn’t getting the results and it “hadn’t boded very well” for him. He initially added the cutter to neutralize lefties. Most of it is the confidence where he doesn’t have to nibble on edges and go after the batters and give his pitches a different look.
Gray had one college scholarship offer coming out of high school at Division-II Le Moyne in Syracuse to play for head coach Scott Cassidy. At Le Moyne he was able to shine as the best D-II pitcher that year in college which led to getting drafted in the second round, and an eventual No. 42 prospect ranking in all of baseball as he was thriving in the Dodgers system.
The right-hander is a cerebral person, and one of the smarter players you will find. He was a business management student and and Academic All-American. Even when he knew he was going to be drafted in the spring of his junior semester in college he hit a 4.0 GPA. As an intelligent person, you figured that Gray would come to the conclusion that he had to change things up or end up in the minor leagues. He could not survive on what he did in 2022 which was really bad when you lead the league in homers and walks…as a pitcher.
What worked in the minors took its toll on Gray to find out that his great 4-seam fastball did not translate well to the Majors where it was a liability and not an asset most of the time. A greater pitch mix would also force batters to not sit on his 4-seamer if he decided to throw it and miss his target. In 2022, the mistake pitches were being hit for homers at an alarming rate of 2.3 HR/9.
For the long-time Nats’ fans, Jordan Zimmermann was the immediate comp to Gray based on their similar repertoires. But JZim had pinpoint command, but then again, Zimmermann didn’t have Gray’s new cutter. Both pitched for cold weather small schools and led their divisions in college, and drafted in the second rounds of their respective drafts. JZim attended the Wisconsin–Stevens Point.
It was Gray’s command and control issues that forced him to make serious changes in his job. Throw for more movement or perish on a trajectory of the scrap heap of failed pitchers who could not adjust to the adjustments that hitters make on you. Remember, after Gray’s 10K start against the Braves in 2021, they tagged him for three runs the next time they faced him. That’s what good teams do, unless you adjust further to make yourself better and change the book. Gray is doing just that in writing new chapters. He is now using his curveball as his pseudo-changeup just like Zimmermann did.
“Just think about how hard it is for a hitter to determine what [the cutter] is. Everything was working. Everything was sharp. He threw a couple curveballs at 82 to 83, which was something Hickey talked to him about a little bit, just to slow [the velo] down a little bit to have a different slower pitch, and the cutter was awesome.”— Nats’ manager Dave Martinez in his postgame media session
Few people can throw a cutter like Mariano Rivera which propelled him to the Hall of Fame, and anyone can tap their knee on the mound like Tom Seaver did in Shea Stadium, but imitating the best rarely translates for the copycat. But get in the lab and grind and put your best foot forward, and maybe you create your own self and the success that goes with it. Credit to Gray, he has persevered, and since that April fool’s disastrous start, he has been making fools of the opposing batters.
If Gray keeps this up, there could be some really special times ahead for him. How soon before Mike Rizzo is phoning Gray’s agent at Icon Sports Management to talk about his future? Okay, maybe that is getting ahead of ourselves, however this is a major step forward for Gray. We should celebrate the good because we all know how much chirping goes on when things are not going right. Baseball is tough. By the way, Gray is scheduled pitch Sunday’s finale against the Pirates on Sunday at Nats Park.