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Rockies opening day starter draws short straw, demotion to Triple-A

Rich Allen Avatar
June 30, 2018

DENVER – When the Colorado Rockies selected Jon Gray third overall in 2013, many believed the team had their first bonafide ace in the making. When he debuted just two years later, and struck out 16 Padres in a game in Coors Field a year after that, the thoughts were affirmed. But no good story lacks adversity.

While the stuff and talent has always been obvious with Gray, putting all together into a top-of-the-rotation package has yet to arrive for the 26-year-old. From an implosion in the 2017 National League Wild Card game to a few high peaks and many deep valleys this season, the last nine months for Gray have been a tale of close, but no cigar. Today, the Rockies decided their Opening Day starter would need to try to find that fancy nicotine fix in Triple-A Albuquerque, optioning him in favor of outfielder Raimel Tapia.

Tapia earns the promotion after hitting .308/.353/.527 for the Isotopes, and was on pace for a 20 home run 30 stolen base season. The 24-year-old joins an already crowded outfield with Charlie Blackmon, Gerardo Parra, Carlos Gonzalez, Noel Cuevas and occasionally Ian Desmond vying for time out in the grass. This will be Tapia’s third stint at the MLB level.

Gray has had a season scarred by unfortunate luck, sporting a batting average on balls in play above .300 and Fielding Independent Pitching of 3.07, 2.70 points below his actual ERA. And although he’s striking out 11.6 hitters per nine innings, he’s also given up more than 10 hits per full game as well.

But this doesn’t mean he’s been hit particularly hard, ranking No. 13 in MLB in fWAR, a predictive stat that shows what a player’s results should have looked like, regardless of what the true outcome was.

Per Statcast, Gray ranks 39th out of 218 in MLB in barrels per batted ball event among pitchers with at least 100 such events, essentially hard-hit rate. He’s No. 30 in barrels per plate appearance with the same qualifier.

He’s thrown three starts of seven innings, giving up one run in one game and none in the other two. He’s also had two games where he didn’t escape the fourth, and an additional two where he didn’t pitch in the fifth.

The problem has been damage control. When he’s been on, he’s been the talent that fans were promised. But, when it rains, it pours. By FanGraphs metrics, Gray has kept opposing hitters below .230 in low leverage situations, with an OBP below .280. Additionally, with empty bases hitters are hitting .266. Not world beating, but respectable. However, as soon as a runner is on, Gray’s opposing batting average shoots up 41 points, and their OBP hits .385. In 15 fewer innings, he’s also walked seven more with runners on than not.

So, Gray will be sent to Albuquerque and the spacious confines of Isotopes Park to limit damage control. In his absence, recent call-up Yency Almonte would be a logical option to take his place in the rotation. The 24-year-old made nine starts in Triple-A before his promotion on June 24 and has since made two relief appearances.

Colorado could also turn to Antonio Senzatela who has been getting himself right in the minors. This would require another corresponding roster move.

The Rockies hope Gray can return to the big league team within a month. In the meantime, the team hopes he can figure out whatever has caused his subpar outings to spiral into disasters and attempt to tread water in the playoff race while they wait.

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