Former OU star assumes starting role for Rockies

Jonathan Gray, starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies and a former OU pitcher, throwing on opening day.

Jonathan Gray, starting pitcher for the Colorado Rockies and a former OU pitcher, throwing on opening day.

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — Four years removed from starring as Oklahoma’s ace en route to an NCAA Super Regional, Jonathan Gray is in a similar situation with the Colorado Rockies.

Gray, the No. 3 overall pick by the Rockies in the 2013 MLB Draft, is coming off an impressive rookie season in which he posted a 4.61 ERA and 185 strikeouts in 168 innings while playing home games at the hitter-friendly Coors Field.

Now, with Chad Bettis out while he battles testicular cancer and Jorge De La Rosa moving to Arizona, the door is open for Gray to become Colorado’s top arm.

“I’m just hoping to go into this year and be a pitcher that, when they take the field, guys behind me know they have a good shot at winning,” Gray said.

So far this spring, Gray has excelled thanks to a new addition to his repertoire: the curveball. He’s used it extensively all spring, most notably when the Rockies scrimmaged a loaded Puerto Rico squad on March 9. Gray shutdown the likes of Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina as he faced the minimum in three innings of work.

Gray didn’t have — or need — the curveball to dominate the Big 12 in 2013. He posted a 1.64 ERA to go with four complete games and 147 strikeouts in his draft year — but it’s made him much more effective at the Major League level.

“It’s making me happy,” he said. “It’s been a pitch that’s usually there every single day and it’s just going to make everything else better.”

Jonathan Gray pitches for OU.

Gray will use the curveball with his power fastball, deceiving changeup and elite slider to try complete his chief goal: To be a more consistent pitcher in 2017.

“I just want to see a consistent player,” he said. “I don’t want to see a guy that can go out and do seven innings, no runs and then the next time it’s four innings, five runs. I don’t want to be that guy. I think consistency is something I’m really attacking.”

New Rockies manager Bud Black also praised Gray, but conceded that his consistency moving forward would be his biggest key to success.

“I think he finished the season strong,” Black said. “We’re just looking forward to him continuing to prove it. He still has something he needs to work on as far as his consistency and stuff.”

While the curveball is the pitch expected to move him to the next level of MLB starters, Gray’s fastball — which averages out at 96 MPH — has always captured the attention of scouts and fans.

“I play catch with him now and even when you know it’s coming it’s still tough to catch,” said teammate Jeff Hoffman, who is competing for a role in the starting rotation. “Just his ability to pitch powerfully and locate at the same time, it’s a tough combination to deal with for hitters.”

As the season inches closer, Gray is on the shortlist to be Colorado’s Opening Day starter — something he never achieved at OU — and step back into the role of his team’s ace. Regardless, 2017 is expected to be a year of growth and maturity for the former Sooner.

“I think he made great leaps last year,” Black said. “Now is he gonna make as big a leap next year? You don’t know. You hope so but he has to continue to do the things that make him successful and with his talent, he’ll be fine.”

Spenser Davis is a writer for OU Covers Baseball, a journalism project covering spring training by Gaylord College of the University of Oklahoma.