Gray Throws Reds a Curve -- And it Worked
In spring training, Jon Gray began refining a curveball.
On Friday night, Gray was given a full-fledged education in the value of a pitch.
It’s a part of the revised mentality of a Rockies pitching staff, which under the guidance of pitching coach Steve Foster and bullpen coach Darren Homes has put to rest the idea that pitchers can rely on a curveball at altitude.
Over the years, a curveball has been a staple for pitchers along the front range. The late Bus Campbell was the champion of the curveball, teaching to anyone who would listen, including when he was the pitching coach for the Boulder Collegians, and introduced the pitch to a right-hander from the University of Texas – Burt Hooton – who became an elite big-league starting pitcher with a repertoire built around the curveball.
“It doesn’t break as much at altitude, but it’s still a good pitch,” Hooton explained when asked about the pitch. “It breaks plenty, though. The key is you have to adjust your release point in Denver from where you release it at sea-level, so it doesn’t break into the hitting zone.
“But that’s what pitching is all about, making adjustments. Every time you go out you make some kind of an adjustment.”
Gray came out of the University of Oklahoma with a slider but not a curveball. He now has both, and on Friday night, when the Rockies rallied for a 5-4 victory against the Reds at Coors Field, it was the curveball that Gray turned to in the later part of a six-inning performance.
And it paid off. He retired eight of the final nine batters he faced. He struck out four, got three to pop up to second, and the eighth on a fielder’s choice ground ball.
That was after he made an in-game adjustment following Eugenio’s Suarez’s two-run home run in the third gave the Reds a 4-1 lead.
That’s when he decided that on this night it was the curveball that was his ally.
“I have been using it two different ways,” said Gray. “I can throw it at top of zone and steal strikes and use it down in the zone to get swings and misses. I felt really comfortable with it. I shook to curveball once, and put it right where I wanted and it, and it was, `Yes, that’s what I need to do.’”
Even at altitude?
“When I am home I try to make guy believe it’s going to be a fastball out of my hand,” said Gray. “I make them think it’s going be fastball up, but it goes down and away”.
Given the speed differential a hitter can’t sit on both pitches, and hitters have a history of not wanting to be embarrassed by a fastball, so they will sit on the heat.
“I always felt the curveball was my key pitch,” said Nolan Ryan, “because when it was crunch time, what’s a hitter going to look for?”
That is unless the hitter is Dante Bichette, who used to wear out Hall of Fame reliever Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman would shake his head at Bichette sitting on the off-speed pitch.
“But it was his go-to pitch,” said Bichette. “You knew it was coming.”
That’s not the case with Gray.
He has a legitimate fastball, changeup and slider. The curveball has become a fourth pitch that he has learned to trust with encouragement from Holmes, who was selected in the expansion draft by the Rockies, and spent five years pitching for them before the humidor. He was their original closer, and it was a curveball that was his signature pitcher.
“Jon is in a good place,” said Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster. “He is working on focusing on the moment, on that next pitch. Not too high. Not too low.”
Friday was perfect reinforcement for the mentality Gray must embrace for long-term success.
“He battled through the early poor results and gave us a chance to win, throwing 100 pitches in six innings," said Foster. "He gave us a chance to win.”
The Rockies took advantage of the chance.