Sometimes the expectations for prospects run amok.
It’s not long ago that Atlanta’s Jason Heyward was thought to be an elite hitting prospect with a great eye at the plate. In the meantime, Giancarlo Stanton had light-tower power but had contact issues along with walk issues. While the contact disparity has held up – Stanton’s Z-contact percentage, or the rate at which he makes contact with baseballs in the strike zone, is 3-percent lower than Heyward’s for their careers – Stanton has managed a better career walk rate to this point; Stanton has been at a 11.4-percent walk rate for in the MLB while Heyward is at 11.3-percent.
There are more examples similar to this, but the over-arching theme is simple: Scouts and analysts can recognize tools but a lot can change in a baseball player in a year or two, let alone five.
The point I’m trying to make is with Jonathan Gray, Colorado’s prized pitching prospect. What prospects and players are now is not a guarantee of what they will be two, three, or five years from now. Major League baseball players adjust, adapt, and grow. That’s especially true of rookies.
I say that because there is a few things fantasy baseball owners need to know about Jonathan Gray.
Gray was drafted out of college, pitching for Oklahoma (with a stop at Eastern Oklahoma State College). In the 282 total innings in college, Gray struck out 312 batters. At Oklahoma alone he struck out 251 batters in 229 innings in two seasons. As Scott Strandberg from Fangraphs noted, a lot of his tantalizing strikeout ability was because of two dominant pitches: Fastball and slider. His fastball could hit triple digits and the slider – which Strandberg described as a sharp, late-breaking slider – would put away batters at a fantastic rate.
His dominance over hitters, maturity, and his pure “stuff” led Gray to be the third overall pick in the 2013 MLB Entry Draft out of Oklahoma. The two guys ahead of him were Mark Appel (RHP) and Kris Bryant (massive power prospect), so he was in some elite company.
After he was drafted in June of 2013, Gray did not disappoint. He only had a brief nine-start stint between Rookie and High-A but he did produce 51 strikeouts in 37.1 innings. There was no reason to think, at that point, that he wouldn’t continue to be dominant against Minor League hitting.
That has changed so far this year. After being at 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings in that short stint in 2013, at time of writing, Gray was sitting at 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings at Double-A this year. Moving up to Double-A is no doubt a part of that decline. Regardless, that’s a massive plummet of over a third of the strikeout rate. It’s still just 64 innings at Double-A for a 22-year-old pitcher who doesn’t turn 23 until November. With that said, he’s not putting away the batters now at the rate he was. If he’s not racking the strikeouts as he’s expected to do, that’s a big hit to his potential fantasy value.
There is no doubt that rookies have played a big part in the success of fantasy baseball teams over the last few years. For pitchers alone, guys like Michael Wacha, Sonny Gray, and Shelby Miller have made their first big league appearances and have done very well.
Aside from the guys that have come to the MLB as rookie pitchers lately, it’s worth looking at how Colorado pitchers have performed.
Here’s something to keep in mind when thinking about Jonathan Gray for a fantasy baseball option this year. Taken from Baseball Reference Play Index:
The only rookie Colorado pitcher with at least 60 innings pitched and an ERA under 3.30 for the season in which he appeared was Jhoulys Chacin in 2010. He put up a 3.28 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in 137 innings pitched. In fact, Chacin is the only rookie Colorado pitcher to ever (since inception in 1993) post an ERA under 4.00 in his rookie year with at least 75 innings pitched.
This is why I get kind of befuddled when I see fantasy baseball owners clamoring for Gray to get the call to the Majors. Sure, the Rockies staff isn’t special by any means so he probably has a spot. But realistically, can Gray come in and shut down opponents? It’s highly doubtful.
Rumors are that Andrew Heaney of the Marlins could be in the Majors fairly soon. There’s a reason for that, too. The Marlins are in a great park, which helps. But Heaney also has a 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his career in the Minors. He was also better in Double-A than High-A, and he was better in Triple-A than Double-A. Over nearly 200 innings, he’s shown progression and improvement. Gray, at least to this point, has not.
For fantasy baseball owners waiting and wishing for a Jon Gray call to the Majors, it may not happen this year until September when rosters expand. Colorado may call him up before because they feel they’re in a Wild Card race but nothing is for certain.
What is for certain is that Jon Gray, for his superb two pitches, is not a complete three-pitch pitcher yet (as most starters need to be). He’s also not striking out guys at a superb rate and his reward for possibly being promoted to the MLB is one of the worst pitcher parks in baseball. Anyone expecting a late season savior is misguided.
In dynasty and keeper leagues, the value is different. For 2014, even if there is a call-up, Gray is nothing more than a deep flier in most mixed leagues at best. He has to prove that he can strike out more guys than he has. After that, he actually has to get the call to Colorado. After that, he has to prove that he can perform as, literally, the best rookie Colorado pitcher ever in order to have value this season.
*as always, thanks to Baseball Reference and FanGraphs for their resources.