Pitchers and Catchers report today, which seems like a perfect time to start our player preview series for the 2023 season. The Nationals will undoubtedly have an interesting season ahead of them, but as we have mentioned previously, their success in 2023 will not be determined by wins and losses like most other teams, but rather by player development and the growth they can facilitate with their young players and hopeful foundational core.
Today we start with one of my favorite players on the Nationals: Josiah Gray. As most know, Gray came to DC in the infamours Max Scherzer & Trea Turner trade at the deadline in the 2021 season and made his Nationals' debut a few days later (I was there, no big deal). Gray has been a part of the Nats' rotation ever since, for the past 1.5 seasons or so. In that time, Gray has started 40 games and amassed 211.1 innings pitched totaling an ERA above 5 and a WHIP above 1.35. It hasn't been the smoothest transition to DC for Gray, but fans need to realize that not every prospect or player hits the ground running. Gray is still young and still has much to learn at the Major League level, and it is on the Nationals to help him get there.
The largest presenting issue that many see is his fastball. To put it simply: it is too flat. I had the chance to speak with Josiah last year and he mentioned that what he is learning is that he cannot beat hitters with a hard thrown fastball down the middle like he could in the minors; he has to locate and use it effectively. This was prior to the 2022 season, and with that now under his belt, I think it is safe to say that Josiah and the Nationals realize his fastball needs to evolve in order for him to have sustained success. The best way to do this is to add a fastball with movement, whether it be a two-seam fastball or even a sinker, which would have downward movement into right-handed hitters, theoretically inducing more weak contact and groundballs, something Josiah could use more of in his starts. Gray led the Major Leagues in home runs allowed last season with 38. I also think Gray having realized he needs to locate his fastball better got in his head and he was trying to be too precise, as he also led the MLB in walks last season with 66.
Now I know that may not sound like a glowing recommendation of Josiah Gray, but the foundation and path forward to him being a more consistent pitcher is there. For starters, his offspeed pitches are good. Very good. Per Baseball Savant, Gray's Slider and Curveball had opposing hitters batting sub-.190 in 2022, with a 38% and 32% whiff rate respectively. Combined Gray throws both pitches more than 50% of the time, which makes sense with how good those pitches are for him. The problem is he's not getting hitters to chase as much, because they know they can take the offspeed and wait for a more hittable fastball. Gray only ranked in the 26th percentile in chase rate in 2022, per Baseball Savant. With a more effective fastball, Gray will have an even better offspeed combination.
Now it is worth mentioning that Gray has tinkered with both a Sinker and Changeup in 2022, but it did not go so well for him so they were not used a ton. But that is to be expected when you're trying to learn new pitches mid-season, as Gray did with his sinker. He has only thrown 95 sinkers and 113 changeups in his professional career, so it is not a very large sample size at all. With a full offseason under his belt and honing his craft, I think we see the utilization numbers for both pitches increase in 2023. Long story short, they are working on it, so there is reason to be optimistic.
It is not an exact comparison, but it is one Nats fans should know well. In his first full season in the Major Leagues, Lucas Giolito was statistically the worst pitcher in baseball back in 2018, his age 23 season. In 2019, Giolito was an All Star, and has been pretty consistent ever since. Gray's first full year in the Majors was last year, his age 24 season. Now I am not claiming Gray will be an All Star this season, but am merely pointing out that one bad season isn't indicative of a career outlook. It is also important to remember that Josiah Gray was a converted Shortstop, so he is still relatively new to pitching and needs some more time. I am certainly not comparing Josiah Gray to Jacob deGrom, so please don't read what I am not saying, but for reference, deGrom was also a converted Shortstop and didn't even make his MLB debut until age 26.
Does Josiah Gray need to be better in 2023? Absolutely. Will he be better in 2023? We don't know, but it is OK to be confident in his ability to improve. Now it may not be a year-to-year improvement like Lucas Giolito had in 2018 to 2019, but an ERA in the mid 4's would be more than acceptable for Gray, with a decrease in Home Run rate and Walk rate. It is important to set realistic expectations and to let thes young players grow and develop. I believe Josiah Gray will be much more effective and consistent in 2023.