For Gray, it was an uneven year, but in 2022, will he still be sorting things out at Coors Field?
Welcome to the 2021 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at every player to log playing time for the Rockies in 2021. The purpose of this list is to provide a snapshot of the player in context. The “Ranking” is an organizing principle that’s drawn from Baseball Reference’s WAR (rWAR). It’s not something the staff debated. We’ll begin with the player with the lowest rWAR and end up with the player with the highest.
★ ★ ★
No. 8, Jon Gray: 1.3 rWAR
If any Rockies pitcher was going to have an unusual year, it was always going to be Jon Gray, especially on the eve of his possible free agency.
He started 2021 strong (3.62 ERA in 19 starts), but that changed after July 30 (6.85 ERA in 10 starts). In that way, Gray’s season reflects his increasing inability to get past the fifth inning.
When the season had ended, in 28 starts, Gray earned an ERA of 4.28 ERA, striking out 150 while walking 58. Clearly, Gray had a solid year. The question now is this: What’s next?
Jon Gray in 2021
Consider the data from Baseball Reference.
Gray threw the third-most innings of the Colorado Rockies starters, was second in strikeouts with 157, and led the rotation (by a lot) with an S0/9 of 9.5.
Actually, let’s take a moment to enjoy some of those sweet, sweet Gray Wolf Ks.
In perusing MLB Film Room, the number of clips featuring nothing but Jon Gray strikeouts is impressive.
On the flip side, yes, he tied with Germán Márquez in surrendering the most home runs (21).
Also worth noting, Gray had the lowest ERA+ of the starters at 104. This was (with the exception of Chi Chi González) an above-average rotation. Yes, it was a bad year for the Rockies, but the problems weren’t with the rotation, and we should take a moment to celebrate that. Whatever your opinion of Jeff Bridich, his pitching plan worked. First-round draft pick Jon Gray was the beginning of this iteration of the Rockies, and it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that.
In July, Gray passed Ubaldo Jiménez for strikeouts in a Rockies uniform. When 2021 ended, Jon Gray with 849 strikeouts was second only to Jorge de la Rosa (985). He leads all Rockies pitchers in SO/9 at 9.23. (Germán Márquez is second at 9.018.) In terms of pitcher rWAR, Gray is seventh with a career rWAR of 12.3. (Jiménez is first with 18.9.)
Thomas Harding writes that Gray has a “unique position in Rockies history.” As he explains:
Before him, starters who established themselves with the Rockies mostly fell into one of two categories: They either signed multi-year contracts that covered free agency years (Ubaldo Jiménez, Aaron Cook, Jeff Francis, Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela are examples), or they were traded/released before reaching free agency (examples included Jamey Wright, Shawn Chacon, Jason Jennings and Chacín, during his first go-round with the club). Tyler Chatwood was the rare exception; he reached free agency and the Rockies didn’t participate in the bidding.
The Gray Wolf: Doing things his way.
If his career as a Rockie is over, Jon Gray left his mark.
Jon Gray Going Forward
As the July trade deadline approached, Gray was clear that he wanted to stay in Colorado — I am not sure I’ve ever heard a player express with such certainty his desire to remain. Trevor Story had all but packed his gym bag; Jon Gray just wanted to wear purple. As he told Kevin Henry, “Absolutely, I would love to stay here. I have a lot of pride pitching here at Coors . . . I know it can be hard to find guys that love to pitch at Coors so hopefully those two things go together well, because I love being a Rockie.”
What seemed like an easy deal became complicated. Last week, Nick Groke reported that the Rockies made Gray an offer of three years for $35-$40 million, which he rejected. On Sunday, we learned that the Rockies had decided against giving Gray a qualifying offer. Thomas Harding tweeted soon after the deadline that the Rockies hope to retain Gray on a multi-year deal. Then, he added this:
… starter will blow away Gray with an offer the #Rockies aren’t willing to beat. But nothing I have heard changes the fact Gray says he wants to stay and the team wants to keep him. This is just Gray accepting advice to exercise the right to field offers, which he has earned.
— Thomas Harding (@harding_at_mlb) November 7, 2021
Presumably, the Rockies assumed Gray would accept the QO, which would be costly and give him a salary significantly higher that that of other starting pitchers. So the Rockies passed on giving Gray a QO in hopes of saving themselves some money by signing a more cost-effective long-term deal. That makes sense. However, that gamble brings with it a considerable risk. In addition to his skill as a pitcher, the fact that any team signing Gray does not have to give up a draft pick make him an especially attractive free agent. If Gray signs with another team, the Rockies gain nothing.
In 2021, Gray earned $6 million and, according to Saunders, is probably hoping for a $9 million-$10 million per season deal for three or four years. (Antonio Senzatela just signed an extension for five years at $50.5 million.)
Whether the two parties can arrive at an agreement is another matter. As the season ended, I was optimistic; now, I’m less confident. It just seems like this should have already been resolved.
A Coda — or Maybe a Bridge
I have been a serious Jon Gray fan since the beginning. The four-seam fastball is pretty awesome, and what’s not to love about that slider? Then there’s the hair — the first Gray-centric piece I wrote on Purple Row focused on his hair — and his work with animal rescue and his belief in the paranormal.
If Gray leaves, though, I’ll probably most miss his absolute honesty. Gray’s self-criticism is always unflinching — sometimes uncomfortably so. Say what you want about Jon Gray, but he doesn’t know how to speak in sports clichés. He just cannot do it. That’s both refreshing and courageous. Too often, I think, it gets overlooked.
I hope Gray is back with the Rockies next year. I’d like to see him try to sort things out and solidify his place in Rockies pitching history. But I also believe that people tend to end up where they need to be, and for Jon Gray, that may be somewhere else.