Pipeline Perspectives: Gray choice to lead in Ks
Rockies right-hander attacks hitters with two legitimate swing-and-miss pitches
There's a good amount of subjectivity regarding baseball prospects. With the evaluation of talent being in the eye of the beholder, finding consensus is often difficult. Even Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo of MLBPipeline.com don't always see eye to eye. They discuss their viewpoints regularly in a feature called Pipeline Perspectives. Submit a topic for them to debate.
At the end of the last decade, almost all of the Minor League strikeout leaders were top pitching prospects who went on to successful big league careers. Brandon McCarthy was the leader in 2004, followed by Francisco Liriano ('05), Yovani Gallardo ('06), Gio Gonzalez ('07) and Matt Moore ('09 and '10).
The lone exception was David Bromberg, who topped the Minors with 177 whiffs in 2008 and has yet to pitch in the Majors. However, the past three strikeout kings -- Edwar Cabrera (2011), Dan Straily (2012) and Dan Winkler (2013) -- have been more similar to Bromberg than to McCarthy and Co.
That trend will reverse itself in 2014. Rockies right-hander Jon Gray was the best prospect in last year's First-Year Player Draft, in which he was the No. 3 overall selection. He's my pick to pace the Minors in strikeouts in his first full professional season.
Gray has not one but two legitimate swing-and-miss pitches. He's capable of topping 100 mph with his fastball and he works in the mid-90s deep into games. His fastball overwhelms hitters not only with sheer velocity but also with its exceptionally heavy life.
Gray's wipeout slider can make batters look just as silly. It's not as consistent as his fastball, though when it's on, it's an upper-80s offering with sharp bite. As we noted when we unveiled MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects for 2014, Gray had both the best fastball and the best slider among the pitchers on the list.
With that kind of stuff, Gray has no problems missing bats. He led the Big 12 Conference last spring with 147 strikeouts in 126 innings, finishing second in NCAA Division I behind only projected 2014 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Rodon. After signing with Colorado for a franchise-record $4.8 million, Gray broke into pro ball by fanning 51 hitters in 37 1/3 innings.
Assuming he pitches about 150 innings, Gray could finish with close to 200 strikeouts. The biggest obstacle between Gray and the strikeout crown could be his own talent. It's not out of the question that the Rockies will summon him to Coors Field before the end of the season.
Gray will face some stiff competition for strikeout leadership. Jonathan Mayo's choice of Pirates right-hander Tyler Glasnow is inspired, because he finished fourth last year with 164 and would have ranked first with his average of 13.3 per nine innings if he hadn't fallen two outs shy of qualifying for the leaderboard. Both his fastball and curveball are strikeout pitches.
Cubs right-hander C.J. Edwards led the Minors in strikeouts per nine innings, averaging 12.0 in a breakout year in which he was the key prospect in the trade that sent Matt Garza from Chicago to the Rangers. Edwards has a nearly unhittable fastball that sits at 93-95 mph and has electric life.
Red Sox left-hander Henry Owens placed second in strikeouts (169) and third in strikeouts per nine (11.3). He isn't overpowering but he does show flashes of three plus pitches and hitters don't get good swings against him.
Though Glasnow, Edwards and Owens are worthy candidates, none of them can match Gray's power and pure stuff. That's why no one in the Minors will strike out more batters in 2014.