Nats need Gray to take big step forward in 2023


Age on opening day 2023: 25

How acquired: Traded with Keibert Ruiz, Donovan Casey and Gerardo Carrillo from Dodgers for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner, July 2021

MLB service time: 1 year, 75 days

2022 salary: $703,500

Contract status: Under team control, arbitration-eligible in 2025, free agent in 2028

2022 stats: 7-10, 5.02 ERA, 28 G, 28 GS, 0 CG, 148 2/3 IP, 136 H, 84 R, 83 ER, 38 HR, 66 BB, 154 SO, 8 HBP, 1.359 WHIP, 78 ERA+, 5.86 FIP, -0.6 fWAR, 0.4 bWAR

Quotable: “I thought he’s had a really productive year for him, as far as his progression. He’s a guy who never pitched anywhere near 100 innings before and got well past that. Took the ball every five days without really a hiccup the whole season, and showed a propensity to miss bats and had stretches of dominance. Like a lot of young players and young pitchers, consistency is the name of the game here. It’s hard to get to the big leagues. It’s even harder to stay in the big leagues. It is really difficult to excel in the big leagues. I think that’s his next progression, but I like what I see every five days.” – Mike Rizzo

2022 analysis: Expectations were high for Josiah Gray when the season began, both because of the glimpses of dominance he showed after his acquisition in 2021 and because the Nationals made him their No. 2 starter coming out of spring training. What the ensuing six months showed was that the right-hander still has the ability to dominate on any given day but is just as likely to get shelled.

Nine times in 28 starts, Gray allowed zero or one earned run over at least five innings. Five times, he struck out nine or more batters. But six times in those 28 starts, he allowed five or more earned runs. And four times he served up three or four homers.

It was the home run and the walk that proved Gray’s biggest problem areas. He led the league in both categories, which is not a good combination. Those problems really came to a head during the second half of the season: In 12 starts, he went 0-5 with 6.28 ERA, issuing 30 walks while allowing 20 homers in only 61 2/3 innings.

The most encouraging aspect of Gray’s season, as Rizzo alluded to, was his ability to stay healthy and make it all the way through the finish line with no physical issues. The Nationals did skip his turn in the rotation a couple times and didn’t have him make his final starts in an attempt to restrict his workload. But he still finished with 148 2/3 innings in his first full major league season, and that should allow him to approach or even surpass the 180-inning mark next year, provided he stays healthy.

2023 outlook: As frustrating as some of Gray’s starts were, it’s not difficult to see why the Nationals remain high on him. He has all the tools to be a solid starter for years to come, but he’s got to refine a few things to get there.

Both of Gray’s breaking balls are top-notch. Opponents hit less than .190 and slugged less than .330 on both his slider and his curveball. And there were times this season when he just started throwing those two pitches the vast majority of the time to have success.

Ultimately, though, you can’t succeed as a major league starter without a fastball, and Gray has to make real strides in that department. His four-seamer tends to tail back over the plate, leading to a .304 batting average, a whopping .738 slugging percentage and 24 of the 38 homers he surrendered. The Nationals have noted an issue with his mechanics: His front foot opens up and lands too far to the left, which causes his front shoulder to fly open and creates that tailing action on his pitches. The plan is to work on a significant overhaul of those mechanics this winter, trying to get him to stride straight toward the plate with his front foot staying closed. Gray also may work more on perfecting a sinker that he began throwing late in the season that was somewhat more successful than his four-seam fastball.

The Nationals are fully invested in Gray for the long haul, so he’s going to be given plenty of rope and plenty more opportunities to struggle without fear of losing his job. But they ideally need to see fewer examples of those struggles next season and more examples of fastball command leading to quality starts, ultimately allowing him to realize his full potential.

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