(Photo via BlueGold News, seen here)
With 20 games remaining for West Virginia, infielder Kyle Gray has been an undeniable bright spot in the Mountaineers 2018 campaign. As of this writing, WVU is 19-17 overall, and 4-7 in Big 12 play. Coming off a solid 2017 season, going 36-26 overall, and 12-12 in conference play, and eventually losing in the regionals to Wake Forest, the Mountaineers knew there would be offensive holes to fill, losing one-third of its lineup going into 2018.
It’s hard to balance all the duties that come with being a major Division I college athlete, especially coming into a state of maturity and leading the team, but Gray’s done it well. According to Mountaineers manager Randy Mazey, “I think he’s leading by example right now. People outside the program have no idea how far he’s come personally and as a player.” That’s an encouraging nod from the head of the club, indirectly speaking of Gray’s maturity, both on and off the field.
The now Junior Gray has been the spark to plug that void. Through 32 games in 2018, the lefty hitting Gray is hitting .336, with six home runs, 16 RBIs, with a slugging percentage of .609, has drawn 20 walks, resulting in an on-base percentage of .440, and contributing to an OPS of 1.049. He leads the team in all of those categories, except RBI’s and walks, but remains in the top four of both.
Even though Gray’s a Junior now, Mazey says this is nothing new. “He’s been contributing to this program since the day he got here. He’s always been a great player and experience has really helped him.” That’s high praise for a young player from his manager. Gray is in his third year with West Virginia, and it’s also his third year as a starter, which is something Mazey says is uncommon in this environment, especially in the ultra-competitive Big 12 conference.
As for Gray, he claims the biggest impact to his season are the adjustments he made coming into the year. “I’ve worked on having a better approach when it comes to certain counts, allowing fastballs to be driven the other way. That way I’m timing up off-speed when it shows up, and being able to keep it to the middle of the field.”
This is common of player’s off-season adjustments, allowing the ball to come to them, not pressing, and doing something with what’s given to them. This is an important step in a player’s career, understanding what changes need to be made, and then making those changes.
Here’s an example of Gray letting a pitch on the outside part of the plate get deep, and then taking it the other way for a solo home run against Oklahoma State righty Joe Lienhard:
Kyle Gray gets one back! His team-high-tying 6th home run leads off the 4th.
B-4, OSU 7, WVU 3, 0 outs for Gonzalez
— WVU Baseball (@WVUBaseball) April 14, 2018
Gray hasn’t just been an offensive difference maker for the blue and old gold, he’s also shown defensive brilliance in the field, like this SportsCenter Top 10 play, coming in at number five on April 12:
The Mountaineers have made Sports Center again! This time it's Kyle Gray's turn.
— WVU Baseball (@WVUBaseball) April 13, 2018
To this point, Gray leads the Mountaineers in triples (3), home runs (6), and on-base percentage (.435). He ranks second in batting average (.331), runs scored (22), hits (40), total bases (70), slugging percentage (.579), and walks (22). With so many high offensive totals, one may be inclined to think Gray will begin to consider this year’s MLB Draft. But Gray says that’s not the way it is. He conceded that he thought about it before the season started, but once the year got underway, he said, “It stayed in the back of my head. I’m going to do what I do here and focus on the season. The rest will take care of itself.”
Mazey backs up Gray’s assertion. When asked whether or not Gray has approached him and discussed the draft, Mazey said, “No, I think Kyle loves West Virginia and playing for the Mountaineers and we love having him… He’s stayed focused on playing baseball here and he’s a guy that I will continue to have a relationship with long after he’s left West Virginia… I hope he stays as long as he possibly can.”
That shows it’s not a one-way relationship either between Gray and the coaching staff. By all indications, the staff enjoys having Gray, and he enjoys the staff. When asked about his decision to choose West Virginia, Gray said, “Definitely the coaching staff. Coach Mazey, Coach Sabins, and when Derek Matlock was here.” Gray was rewarded by starting as a Freshman and continue to play to this point.
I also asked Gray about playing in the prestigious Big 12, one of the most difficult conferences in the nation. He expressed how “awesome” it is, saying, “It’s one of the best conferences, and that’s what I always dreamed of playing in growing up, so being able to play against the talent that I do when we get into conference play is awesome.” Gray added, “It’s really when you see what you’re capable of when you start playing.” And it’s true.
Much like the SEC in football during years past, the Big 12 may deceive the casual observer, appearing to be teams that don’t match up with some of the top programs in the nation, because they’re all always beating up on each other. As of April 16, the Big 12 has only planted three teams in the Top 25 (as opposed to the SEC’s eight clubs in the Top 25), but those numbers may mislead those outside of Big 12 country. The conference only currently houses one team with a record under .500 on the year (Kansas State).
As for the Mountaineers as a team, things haven’t been going exactly as they had planned thus far. Coming off a couple strong years, WVU has taken a step back. When prompted as to why West Virginia has been struggling, Mazey said, “I think we just have to get better on all three sides. We have to pitch better, we have to play better defense and we have to continue to hit better, which we’ve done lately.” Mazey also suggested we shouldn’t expect that to continue, going on to say, “Now that we’re playing some home games and getting to sleep in our own bed, I think we’ll get in a better rhythm and start getting better results.”
Kyle Gray will look to keep it going as West Virginia will host in-state rival Marshall before returning to conference play against the 23rd ranked Texas Longhorns (NCBWA).