Ever-evolving Gray figuring out the pitcher he really is

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – As he stood on the warning track to the side of the plate Tuesday morning watching several of his regular hitters step in to face Josiah Gray in the first round of live batting practice this spring, Nationals hitting coach Darnell Coles saw a few swings and misses. He saw a few called strikes. He saw a few weak ground balls.

A fan standing behind the backstop a few feet away brashly asked Coles: “Is that the Single-A team? They’re making Josiah look like a Hall of Famer!”

Coles, to his everlasting credit, didn’t berate the fan, who almost certainly had no idea who he was talking to. “Yeah, that’s the Single-A team,” he responded with a smile, fully knowing the results of a February practice session like this have no bearing on what’s to come from April through September.

Coles also knew what that fan – and perhaps many others out there – seem to forget: Gray is a good major league pitcher.

Before you pounce on that blasphemy, let’s review the facts. Gray finished last season with a 3.91 ERA, 15th best in the National League. His ERA-plus of 110 means he was above-average, a full 10 percent better than the league average to be precise. He was one of only 21 pitchers in the NL to make at least 30 starts. He made the All-Star team. He finished with 3.1 WAR, 15th-best in the NL, right behind Cy Young Award contender Spencer Strider.

Was Gray a certified ace? No. Did he still have a good season? Yes, something he sometimes has to remind himself when contemplating the big picture.

“I was talking about it yesterday: There were a lot of good things last year that I did, but there were obviously things I wanted to work on,” he said. “You have that confidence, knowing you had the success you were looking for after two rough seasons before. Then, you move on to: ‘How can I get that much better now?’ I had both of those thoughts. It was a good season, but there were things to work on.”

Gray indeed has areas that need improvement. After cutting his home run rate nearly in half from 2022 to 2023, he now needs to cut his walk rate after seeing it go up slightly from 10.2 percent to 11.5 percent. He needs to become more efficient and not see so many starts cut short after five innings due to a pitch count approaching 100. He needs to not fall into the kind of rut that plagued him late last summer and made his final stats not look as impressive as they might otherwise have been.

The good news? He already showed last year how he can improve in a number of areas, most notably that dramatic reduction in home runs surrendered.

Gray’s hard-hit rate went down to 36.8 percent, well below the league average of 38.9 percent. Same with his average exit velocity (87.5 mph, lower than the league average of 88.2 mph).

As for that August swoon that saw him surrender 22 earned runs in a stretch of 23 1/3 innings, yes it did make his ERA balloon from 3.27 to 4.13. But just when it looked like his breakthrough season was going to fall apart, Gray bounced back with three straight strong outings to end his year, get his ERA back in the 3.00s and head home with an important boost of confidence.

“It was such a good year that I don’t want the month of August and early September to cloud it,” he said. “But with having those starts that weren’t good, it gives you a reality check. You might be riding a high, and then you kind of get hit in the face and you have to be able to rebound. For me, it took longer than I would’ve wanted it to have taken.

“But being able to rebound, I think it showed the confidence I have in myself, the confidence (manager Davey Martinez) has in me. I ended up going into the offseason with a positive mindset, knowing yes, there are things to work on, but the body of work itself was very positive and progressive compared to years past.”

Gray is an admitted perfectionist. He’s also a tinkerer. According to Baseball Savant, he threw a whopping seven different types of pitches last season, adding both a cutter and a sweeper to a repertoire that already included a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a slider, a curveball and a changeup.

At times, it felt like overkill. But by season’s end, the 26-year-old had a better understanding of what actually worked, what didn’t and how he plans to proceed.

“I’m hoping that he understands coming into this spring who he is and what makes him really good,” Martinez said. “And I’m hoping by talking to him that a lot of the tinkering is going to go away this year. I think he learned a lot about himself last year. He was an All-Star, right? He had an unbelievable first half. The second half was a little bit different, but he saw both sides of the spectrum: What he can be and what he should be vs. what he doesn’t want to be. I think that’s definitely going to help him moving forward.”

Who is Gray as a pitcher? He knows he’s never going to be a fastball-first guy. He needs to induce weak contact – or no contact at all – via movement and changing speeds.

“I’ve never been the guy that’s going to touch 100 and blow your doors off with fastballs,” he said. “It’s more deception and a good mix of pitches now. So in knowing that, I think I have an approach now for all types of hitters. If I have a guy up there who has a good slugging percentage, I can pitch to him. If I have a guy up there who’s trying to get base hits, I can pitch to him. Yes, I feel like I’m definitely learning myself more and more each day, and I’m confident with the approach I have every time I go out there.”

Gray may have been their best starter last season, but the Nationals don’t necessarily need him to be their best starter long-term. In a perfect world, MacKenzie Gore and Cade Cavalli leapfrog him and become the club’s trusted frontline starters. A big-name free agent or trade acquisition could finally be part of the plan next winter, as well.

Perhaps Gray will then settle into a more natural role as a middle-of-the-rotation guy, a reliable workhorse who takes the ball 30-plus times every season and gives his team a chance to win more often than not.

Perhaps then the fan who unknowingly mocked the Nats’ 2023 All-Star to their hitting coach Tuesday morning will draw the conclusion plenty of others already have come to realize: Josiah Gray is a good major league pitcher.

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