Welcome to the future of the Washington Nationals rotation, its name is Josiah Gray. Gray has reintroduced himself to fans in DC in 2023 as a changed player on the mound. Suddenly the 25-year-old has begun reaching the high expectations placed upon him, expectations that he struggled to meet in a difficult 2022 season. To kick off a series of player profiles that will break down the young core of the Nationals, let's investigate Gray's early season success and think about just how good he can become.
When you trade Max Scherzer and Trea Turner for a package of prospects, those prospects had better make it worthwhile. The Nationals put a lot of faith into Gray and his minor-league battery mate Keibert Ruiz from the Los Angeles Dodgers system, and Gray came to DC with big shoes to fill in the rotation. In the decade-plus since the team drafted Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals have gotten accustomed to dominant starting pitchers taking the hill. However, the team has fallen well behind in trends in the modern game: developments in pitch modeling, analytics-based coaching and scouting, and especially fastball profiles. With Scherzer long gone and Strasburg missing in action, the team's once-great veteran pitching rotation has evaporated and they've been unable to replace it.
In 2021 and 2022, Josiah Gray embodied the struggles of the Nationals to keep up in the league-wide arms race of high-spin fastballs and sweeping horizontal sliders. At age 24, when most former top prospects are expected to breakout and enter their prime years, Gray put up one of the worst seasons of any pitcher in baseball. He showed flashes of upside and still was expected to be capable of being a back-end rotation piece, but everybody saw Gray get exposed over a full season. Young players tend to get better with experience, of course, but Gray was coming into 2023 with fairly low expectations.
It's amazing what six starts can do to the way we think about a player. If you've only watched 2023 Josiah Gray, you would be unfamiliar with the player described in the previous paragraph. Gray has put up the best stretch of his young career in April, and has done so in dramatic fashion. In his first game, and the second game of the Nationals season, Gray allowed home runs to each of the first two batters he faced, and a third home run in the fourth inning. As it turns out, that start, the one where Gray appeared unchanged from his homer-prone 2022 season, was an elaborate April Fools' prank.
In Gray's next five starts, he has had a 1.57 ERA and has pitched into the 6th inning each time, completing six innings three times. Gray has looked excellent in this stretch of games against four teams over .500 and one game at Coors Field. He has struck out players like Shohei Ohtani and Pete Alonso, cooled down the surprisingly red-hot Orioles and Pirates, and earned a pair of wins despite some shockingly poor run support. Most importantly, Gray has only allowed one home run since his first start of the season. For a Nationals team playing some bad baseball overall, Gray's performance has jolted some energy into the team and the fanbase and has been one of the top stories so far.
There's some bad news: like anything and everything in baseball, surprising outlier statistics are overwhelmingly likely to regress to the mean in a larger sample. Gray hasn't made much of a dent in his career numbers yet, and even in his stellar season has a mediocre 4.42 FIP. His walk-to-strikeout ratio is less than spectacular, and, well, it's just April. April has the distinct effect of generating some wild small-sample nonsense and a consequential barrage of bold takes and overeager hype trains. That doesn't strongly apply to Josiah Gray, but it's best practice to remember what month it is.
Those downsides need to be kept in mind for Gray, but it's absolutely clear that he has improved from where he was before. It's not often that players can cut their ERA in half after one offseason. Gray has seen better results across the board, but especially in generating weak contact. So far in 2023, Gray is in the top 10% of the league in exit velocity allowed and hard hit% allowed, and has allowed half as many barrels as last year. Those gains are massive, and are driving his stellar performance despite his strikeout and walk rates staying put. Previously, Gray was a magnet for hard contact and home runs. If he can maintain even some of his gains in preventing barrels and home runs, his ceiling is suddenly much higher.
Taking a peek at Gray's Baseball Savant page breaks down his improvements and lets us examine his reloaded arsenal for 2023. Gray's cutter has been talked about frequently as a brand-new offering he developed over the offseason, but it's his fourth-best pitch and is nothing to get too excited about. It does provide him an extra look for hitters deeper in games which carries some intangible value, and could allow his better pitches to be more effective. What is clear is that his fastball and slider have both been more effective in 2023 than previously. His fastball still has a low spin rate and whiff rate, but Gray has managed to utilize it in a much less homer-prone way. According to FanGraph's pitch values his fastball has actually generated positive value so far, which is a massive improvement from previously being one of the worst pitches in baseball.
Gray's slider is something of an outlier in the modern MLB with well below-average horizontal movement. The pitch has even less horizontal movement this season than in previous seasons at 0.2 inches compared to the MLB average of 3.9 inches. Both his slider and curveball have below average horizontal break, vertical break, and velocity. That sounds bad, but Gray is able to keep hitters off of the two pitches that don't look like a majority of other sliders in the league. Looking at Gray's pitch map, you can see how he frequently locates his slider to the arm side, and always keeps his curveball near the strike zone. It's an unconventional way of pitching but it works well enough to get above-average whiff and chase rates, and an average amount of strikeouts. When Gray has enough command to avoid hard contact on top of that, he is finding serious success.
How, then, should we think about Gray as a pitcher and as an asset for the team? It's tempting to think that Gray can continue to get better and better and become an ace. He was a headline prospect and is probably the best pitcher on the team right now, after all. That's probably too high of an expectation for Gray, considering his major-league track record to this point and the fact that he's past the age where players tend to make huge leaps. There can only be so many truly elite pitchers in a zero-sum league, and Gray lacks a top-end carrying tool to turn into a new Max Scherzer. Remember, he has a low-spin fastball and below average movement on all of his pitches, and doesn't make up for that by preventing walks. It's hard to be great with that being the case. Despite that, his solid run of play has absolutely improved his outlook. If Gray can suppress home runs at an acceptable rate and continue his durability and length in his outings, he will cement himself as a mid-rotation piece. There are more exciting pitchers out there, but Gray has a great chance at being a consistent contributor as a third starter type, which is a highly valuable asset for any team.
For now, Gray and fellow young starter MacKenzie Gore will assume the role of co-aces for the Nationals, for lack of any better options. Gray still has room to improve, and time to do so, as he plays his second full season. Gray is under team control through the 2027 season and is already one of the most valuable players in the Nationals organization. If the team thinks Gray can continue his strong play and keep getting better, they will need to consider an early extension for Gray, which has been a popular move in MLB recently. Gray may be on his way to an All-Star Game this year, and his free agent price will only increase if he makes it there. If the Nationals want to become competitive in any of the next three, four, five years, they will need Josiah Gray to be one of the players to lead them there.