Gray completes dominant spring, looks ahead to season

JUPITER, Fla. – The 0.55 spring ERA, to be sure, is really nice. So is the 0.918 WHIP. It would be hard for Josiah Gray and the Nationals to look at those numbers as camp wraps up and not be pleased.

The spring stats that really stood out to Gray, though, were the two that showed dramatic improvement from his 2022 season.

“Walks,” he said. “I think walks are the biggest one. If I can keep those down, that puts me in a really good position early on. … And then we all know the home run ball. Just being able to limit that is obviously going to take away the biggest negative play for a pitcher. So those two are big.”

Gray, for those who don’t remember, surrendered a major-league-high 38 home runs last season while issuing a National League-high 66 walks. It proved to be a deadly combination that turned what at times looked like a promising campaign into a frustrating one for the young right-hander.

It’s spring training, of course, so this comes with all the usual caveats. But over the course of five starts and 16 1/3 innings this spring, Gray issued only two walks and did not surrender any homers.

“It tells me he's controlling the balls and strikes,” manager Davey Martinez said after today’s 2-2 tie against the Marlins in the Grapefruit League finale. “He’s pounding the strike zone, has a good mix of pitches, keeping guys off balance. He’s done really well this spring.”

How did Gray achieve that? He’s not sure there’s one specific answer, but it’s probably a combination of better command, an emphasis on keeping the ball down in the zone and the addition of a cutter to his repertoire, a pitch that is proving quite effective against left-handed hitters who mashed his fastball last year.

“The cutter’s going to make a difference for him,” Martinez said. “Now he can control both sides of the plate.”

The addition of the cutter to an arsenal that also includes an above-average curveball and slider as well as a changeup may at times give Gray reason not to throw his four-seam fastball. Noticing that trend this afternoon, Martinez and pitching coach Jim Hickey instructed him to throw a bunch of fastballs in his fourth and final inning. He proceeded to get Garrett Cooper to foul two of them off, then got Avisaíl García to whiff at three of them for a strikeout to punctuate his 57-pitch afternoon.

“That’s huge,” Gray said. “As pitchers, we have sort of a mindset that pitching with the fastball is something we stray away from if it gets hit a little bit hard. So just continuing to re-establish that … to these hitters, specifically, because last year I faced them the fifth and sixth time, I got in counts where they were hitting a lot of breaking balls, where early in the season it was a lot more effective. So the more I can throw it later in counts will open the zone to putting them away when I have two strikes.”

It’s all part of the maturation process as a young major league pitcher. Gray understands he needs to show real improvement this season, all the more so with Cade Cavalli out until 2024 following Tommy John surgery.

It remains to be seen if the performances he put together here in March will translate into comparable performances up north in April and beyond. But if nothing else, Gray leaves Florida with renewed confidence, thanks to a dynamite camp.

“It’s a lot of fun to have success here, but I’m hoping and I’m striving to have success in the season, because I think it is attainable,” he said. “It’s just a matter of going at it each day and taking care of what I can take care of.”

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