by Anthony Franco
Josiah Gray is carving out a name for himself in prospect circles. A standout performer at Division II Le Moyne College in Syracuse, Gray entered his junior season as a draft prospect to monitor. Showing supreme athleticism and arm speed out of the bullpen in the summer of 2017 on the Cape, Gray entered 2018 poised to front Le Moyne’s rotation. Working deeper in games didn’t prove much of a challenge, as Gray posted a 1.25 ERA in nearly 100 innings for the Dolphins. Results, though, were to be expected from a top prospect facing D-II competition. What was more impressive to scouts was Gray’s ability to hold his velocity throughout starts, giving reason for teams to dream on him as a starter. His frame, velocity and athleticism gave him a shot to come off the board on the first day of the draft, but it was by no means guaranteed.
Aware of his status on the day-one bubble, Gray and his family nervously watched the MLB Network draft special. “I started to get a little more antsy- at the edge of my seat- wondering if I was going to get picked first day or if I would have to wait until the second day,” he admitted. That worry turned into excitement when he got a phone call toward the end of the second round. Unlike drafts in the other major professional sports, much of the MLB draft involves pre-pick negotiations, making for a bizarre viewing experience when analysts announce picks on Twitter minutes before the commissioner does. That notice also allowed the Cincinnati Reds to make an offer to Gray about fifteen minutes before their selection. “I thought about it with my family, and we were all excited for the offer,” Gray recalled. “I said yes, and at Pick 72, my future was made.” Knowing it was coming didn’t make it any less sweet to hear his name announced. “Everyone jumped for joy; it was a surreal moment to have everything from college pay off.”
Following a brief stint at the Reds’ spring training complex to introduce him to the organization, the Reds assigned Gray to their Appalachian League affiliate in Greeneville, Tennessee. The organization didn’t change anything about Gray’s approach or mechanics post-draft; his first half-season was simply acclimating to pro ball. Acclimation, though, inherently involves making adjustments, the starkest of which involved the baseball itself. “The (pro) ball moves less,” Gray pointed out. “The seams are a little bit lower. It takes some time to adjust. Once you adjust to the new baseball, you start to see (how pitches move).” With only half a season to make a strong impression on the organization, Gray needed to produce regardless of the seam height on the ball. “In pro ball, you have to adjust quickly. You have to get there and perform no matter what,” he noted.
Acclimating to the baseball was only the first of several changes to make the jump from Division II to the Appalachian League. Facing opposing hitters, predictably, presents entirely new challenges. There are no more free outs. “There’s definitely a big (mental) adjustment,” Gray confirmed, noting that sequencing and locating take on new importance as the competition strengthens. “But my time at Le Moyne definitely helped groom me into the successful pitcher I was this past year. I got confident in my stuff (in college), and once you’re confident in your stuff, it’s the same catcher, same strike zone…. They were obviously better hitters, but as the hitters get better, so do the pitchers.”
And then there’s the matter of familiarity. Gray’s been in Syracuse the past three years, under the same coaching staff, playing alongside many of the same teammates. He admitted that entrance into pro ball involves some initial awkwardness for all players as they aim to find their niche in the clubhouse. Again though, he noted that pro ball requires that players adjust quickly. That applies as much to teammates as it does to the equipment or to one’s own mechanics. “It’s like any other baseball team; you might be getting paid this time around, but baseball’s still everyone’s passion,” he said. “It’s the same game, just a little more (high stakes) than what most people are used to.”
Easygoing by nature, Gray handled the systemic challenges thrown at him with aplomb. His numbers were impressive, although as a college pitcher in rookie ball, that’s to be expected. More important at this stage of his development are the subjective evaluations, what scouts and coaches observe when Gray takes the mound. The reviews were glowing. Baseball America ranked Gray the tenth-best prospect in the Appalachian League this season, grouped with a collection of first-round picks and high-priced international amateurs. Fangraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen, meanwhile, pointed out on a recent podcast that Gray’s lack of exposure as an amateur caused him to fly under the radar- at least publicly- noting that he’s “just better than (scouts thought).”
With the objective and subjective evidence aligning favorably, Gray looks to have pitched his way into the full-season ball picture for 2019. An assignment to the Low-A Midwest League, where the Reds’ shockingly-popular Dayton affiliate resides, seems in the cards. While the organization hasn’t yet settled on where he’ll play (or at least, hasn’t told Gray about it if they have), Gray confirmed that his offseason focus will be to build strength in anticipation of a full-season schedule. True to form, he’ll “roll with whatever assignment they give” him, but he noted that he hopes to start the season in Low-A, not end it there.
Wherever he ends up pitching in 2019, Gray will be a pitcher to watch. A bona fide MLB starting pitching prospect only 18 months removed from being an anonymous Division II reliever, Gray’s rapid ascent has been remarkable. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his name coming up on midseason top 100 prospect lists with a strong first half. How special that journey’s been is not lost on the player.
“As a Division II guy, you only get so much buzz. I’m glad I got to get out there and perform at a high level, make people notice that, even though I’m from a D-II school, I can get outs at the pro level. I’m always happy to do that.” He’s only just begun.