Feb. 14, 2011

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Gray latest great ace at Vandy

By Jimmy Jones

Special to CollegeBaseballInsider.com


Let there be no doubt about it, David Price, Casey Weathers, Jeremy Sowers and Mike Minor – all first-round draft picks in the major league draft – left big shoes to fill for Sonny Gray (right) when he joined the Vanderbilt pitching staff two years ago.


The shoes fit just fine. In fact, they just may be a little snug for comfort for the rising junior.


The ultra-talented right-hander enjoyed a stellar sophomore campaign, posting a 10-5 record with a 3.48 ERA in 108.2 innings. He also struck out 113, walked 48 and limited teams to a .246 batting average to help lead the Commodores to within one game of the College World Series, and to the second-best record in school history (46-20).


He followed that up by becoming the third Commodores pitcher in the past five years (Price and Minor) to be named Baseball America’s 2010 Summer Player of the Year for his outstanding work with Team USA. He registered a 3-0 record with a 0.38 ERA and an astounding 37 to 4 strikeout/walk ratio in 24 innings against the best competition the world had to offer.


It was a huge stride forward for a player who came into the SEC with a blazing fastball that he had grown accustomed to simply blowing by hitters early in his career.


“I had to learn to not try and strike every hitter out when I got to this level, and that was the biggest adjustment I think I had to make,” Gray said. “I had to learn to know when and how to try and strike out batters in certain situations.


“College hitters are a lot better, and they will take the breaking ball out of the zone so it means you might have to throw a lot more pitches to get outs. I have learned to pitch to contact, to throw the fastball with more movement, to try and get more outs early in the count. It is an area of the game that DJ [pitching Coach Derek Johnson] preaches so it is something that I will continue to work on this year, and hopefully it will help me to go deeper into games.”


That philosophy has been very successful for Johnson, who recently was named American Baseball Coaches Association/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year, his second national award.


He has a very willing student in Gray.


“Sonny is a great athlete but from a pitcher’s standpoint, he had to learn to slow the game down a little bit,” Johnson said. “The game seems to come at you at 90 miles an hour in your first year, so he was no different in that aspect.


“I am not sure that his stuff got any better, but I think slowing down and focusing on developing a one-pitch-at-a-time mentality was a big factor of him coming into himself.”


Pitching is always at a premium, but the future first-round draft choice displayed an often overlooked part of his game when he was chosen as a member of the SEC All-Defensive team after the season. Gray played flawless defense in 26 opportunities with 10 putouts and 16 assists.


His play as a fifth infielder was further recognized when he became the first player in Vanderbilt history to be named to the Rawlings NCAA Division I Gold Glove Team announced last week.


“It is something that I don’t get to talk about much,” said Gray, a native of Smyrna, Tenn. “That is something that we work really hard on here. We work on our agility with some football stuff that helps us to get off the mound quickly and field the ball and then it becomes important to make a good throw.


“Playing defense off the mound becomes even more important with the new bat restrictions because I think you will see more bunts this season. It is definitely something that I take great pride in and will continue to work hard at.”


Combine that mindset with superb skills and it won’t be long before Gray will be following in the footsteps of Sowers, Price and Minor again...this time, to the major leagues.


(photos by Jimmy Jones)