Colorado Rockies rookie Jon Gray has found success pitching at hitter-friendly Coors Field.
Solving the riddle of how to pitch in a dry climate a mile above sea level has been the Colorado Rockies‘ central challenge since the inception of Coors Field. The thin air combined with the spacious dimensions has resulted in more runs being scored there than any other ballpark the last 15 years.
Because of Coors’ reputation as a hitter-friendly environment, the Rockies haven’t been able to lure in big-name free agent pitchers and thus deploy a competent staff. The organization instead has had to build from within and attempt to instill into their pitching prospects the proper mindset necessary to be effective in the Mile-High City.
Although Jon Gray flashed arguably the best raw stuff of any pitcher who’s made their way through the Rockies’ pipeline when he broke into the big leagues late last season, he appeared to lack the mental aspect of his game that wound up inflating his numbers at home. After his final start of 2015 in which he was shelled, a discouraged Gray spoke to the media and expressed some frustration in regards to pitching at Coors:
"“I feel like my road numbers are good,” Gray said. “But here, they’re really bad. If I can just … I don’t know if it’s setting my sights on pitches or what, but I have to make a change fast. I have to pitch here.”"
The former first round pick is clearly doing something different in 2016 considering he’s been the 17th-best pitcher based on WAR and has posted a tidy 3.16 FIP at home – the lowest of any Rockies pitchers since Ubaldo Jimenez in 2010 – but what exactly are the changes that’s occurred?
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For starters, Gray is pounding the bottom of the strike zone more often than he did last year, throwing 53.2 percent of his pitches at or below the knees. As a result, his 32 percent fly ball rate is the 12th lowest among National League starting pitchers, while his 0.96 home runs per nine innings rank 8th, which is unheard of considering he pitches more than half of his games at a ballpark where fly balls carry further than any other place.
Another adjustment that Gray has made is to his slider, which has been the 13th most valuable one among starting pitchers this season. Gray’s slider is coming in 2.3 mph faster than last year at 89.4 mph – the second hardest slider thrown in the league behind Noah Syndergaard.
The reasoning behind the uptick in velocity is likely due to him trying to compensate for the humidity-free air in Denver that makes it difficult for a pitcher to get the desired spin to snap off his off-speed pitches. Studies have shown that the high altitude causes sliders and curveballs to break as much as 20 percent less than they normally would at sea level. Now that he’s throwing the slider harder with tighter movement, he’s able to consistently get the pitch to behave the way he intends it to while decreasing the likelihood of having it get caught up in the Colorado air and hang in the zone.
Gray’s slider was on full display three starts ago against the San Diego Padres. He tossed a complete-game shutout in which he set a franchise record with 16 strikeouts – 12 of those coming on the slider. The number of punchouts was the most in the history of Coors Field, as Gray bypassed Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, who whiffed 14 Rockies at Coors back in 2001.
The Padres aren’t the only ones that have struggled against his slider. Opponents swing and miss on Gray’s slider at a 27.4 percent rate, and are batting just .180 and slugging .270 when they do make contact. It’s a big reason, along with his fastball than can occasionally touch triple digits, as to why his 26 percent strikeout rate ranks fifth in the National League while his five 10-plus strikeout games are the second-most in a single season in Rockies history behind Pedro Astacio, who had seven in 2000.
It appears the Rockies have finally found what they’ve been looking for: a pitcher who has the type of repertoire to be successful at Coors Field for years to come.