ATLANTA – The Nationals have worked diligently with Josiah Gray on his mechanics since the end of last year.
In 2022, the right-hander’s first full season in the bigs, he gave up a major league-worst 38 home runs and a National League-worst 66 walks en route to a 5.02 ERA and 1.359 WHIP.
The team wanted their young starter to finish his pitches straighter toward the plate instead of flying open toward the first base line. And for the most part this year, he’s much improved.
After his rough season debut against the Braves, in which he gave up five runs on three home runs, Gray went through an eight-start stretch of giving up just 11 earned runs and two homers over 47 ⅔ innings for a 2.08 ERA and struck out more than double the amount of batters he walked.
But over his last six starts, including the five innings he completed in last night’s 3-2 loss to the Braves, some old habits are starting to creep back. Gray walked four Friday night, the fifth time in his last six starts he’s surrendered three or more free passes. He now has a 1.470 WHIP over that stretch.
“The walks. A lot of walks,” manager Davey Martinez said of Gray’s outing last night. “But when he needed to get an out, he got some big outs for us. But we got to get him back. His direction's off a little bit. So his next bullpen we're gonna sit down and work on his direction, get his head going in the right direction and get him back in that strike zone.”
This work goes back to spring training. Gray was often seen in the bullpens at the Nationals’ facility in West Palm Beach going through a throwing motion with actually throwing a ball, instead focusing on landing his front toward the plate and keeping his head straight.
“I always work on it,” Gray said last night. “But once I get in the game, your body does what it wants to do. So for me, I think my legs weren't as under me as I wanted to. Probably just a little bit tired, getting fully ready for yesterday and then coming back today. Getting ready for completely different teams, scouting them, things like that. But yeah, just got to get back in my legs a little bit and work with the pitching coaches. Work with (pitching coach Jim) Hickey and (bullpen coach) Ricky Bones and just get right back to where I need to be and take today as a win. But know that I can be better. I can get into the sixth, seventh against some of these really good teams and get a win for the team.”
Gray himself is 4-5 on the season and the Nationals are 6-7 in his first 13 starts. Some of that has to do with the lack of run support he received in his early starts. But overall, Gray has done a great job of keeping his team in games and giving them a chance to win.
A big part of that has been his improvement in the home run department. Despite now issuing the fifth-most walks in the majors with 37, Gray has been one of the best starting pitchers at limiting longballs with eight, three of which came in that first start.
“I think ever since spring training, just trying to limit the longball, limit the walks,” he said. “Not really limiting the walks as best as I can right now. But limiting the longball is a big thing because as a hitter, that's the best thing they can do. So the more I can limit that or just get away from that, it keeps the team in the game and gives me the ability to work around a single or double or something like that. So it's been great to have that home run rate be a little bit reduced this year and go back to where it's at. But gotta go back out for the next outing and get right back to it because once you step on that mound, you just got to give it your all. So it's been solid so far.”
The Nationals want Gray to get back to that earlier success while also improving in the walk department. And it starts with his mechanics as he’s begun to open up more in his delivery.
“When you're flying open like that, it's tough to command,” Martinez said, “because all he's doing, his arm's got to catch up and he's throwing a lot of balls in the dirt. His fastball command wasn't really there today. He's missing arm side again, and that tells me that he's opening up. So we'll work with him in his next bullpen and get him right.”
“I think it's just my body naturally opens up a little bit more than the picturesque pitcher,” Gray said. “There's a fine line just like anything. So balancing that fine line, I think the last few starts I have been a little bit more open. But before that, I feel like it was slightly more closed. So it's just getting back to looking at maybe some mechanical things from early in April, seeing what I was doing there and seeing is it something at the start of the of the delivery, is it something with my leg lift, is it something when I'm getting down the mound, and working on it that way. Because I think it's probably something small that's probably leading to me landing a little bit more open. But I think it can be fixed with some good eyes on it and some diligent work doing it.”