Gray's hard work could lead to being No. 1 pick
Besides changing mechanics, Oklahoma right-hander hit weight room, improved diet
Jonathan Gray is no stranger to the Draft. In fact, this will be his third time going through the process, but it's a whole different ballgame now.
Gray was a 13th-round pick by the Royals in 2010 out of the Oklahoma high school ranks, but instead of signing, he went on to Eastern Oklahoma State Junior College. After one year there, and a 10th-round selection by the Yankees in 2011, he moved to the University of Oklahoma. Since then, there's been a transformation of epic proportions as Gray has gone from an "OK" prospect with some arm strength to perhaps the No. 1 pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, which begins Thursday.
"There were times, during the last time I was drafted, I got down about it, thinking I should've gone earlier," Gray said. "But looking back at it, I'm glad it went down the way I did. I wouldn't change a thing. It shows you what can happen when you work hard for things."
Much of that work has been on the physical end. Gray credits two years of working with Oklahoma pitching coach Jack Giese for enabling him to become a much more complete pitcher than he was in high school or junior college.
"He's been a huge help to me," Gray said. "I look completely different than what I looked like in high school and junior college. Everything came together here. It's had a huge impact on me. It turned me into a completely different player."
Pitching mechanics alone wouldn't cause this much of a change, however. Gray was, to be blunt, a bit soft when he first arrived at Oklahoma. But a combination of strength and conditioning, along with some common-sense nutrition, has turned him into a 6-foot-4 beast.
It's one thing for that kind of work to be suggested, it's another for the player to get on board. But Gray bought in 100 percent.
"That was something I kind of took personally, my body and the way it changed," Gray said. "In junior college, I was in bad shape, I had a bad body. I told myself if I didn't sign out of junior college, I was going to become the best player I could be. I focused most of my energy on that."
The results are obvious. Entering NCAA regional play this weekend -- Gray will pitch in Blacksburg, Va., on Friday or Saturday -- the right-hander was 9-2 with a 1.55 ERA, a .181 batting average against and 127 strikeouts (against just 21 walks) in 110 innings. He's been dominant nearly throughout the season, with reports of regular triple-digit radar-gun readings coming out of Norman, Okla.
It's a string of success that's been contagious for Gray, a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist. As much as the physical part of his game has come along, it might be the mental part that has advanced the most. Having faith in oneself can go a long way.
"Last year, I didn't have enough confidence, at least until the end of the year," Gray admitted. "I didn't trust everything I threw or that I'd win every time I was on the mound. It's that jump in confidence and believing that I'm good. Every time I go out, now I feel I have a really good chance to win.
"I had to believe right away I was going to become the guy I am now. Every start I have was like a notch in my belt and my confidence kept building. Every start takes my confidence up a level."
As sure of his abilities as he's become, even Gray has to admit that what has happened this year has exceeded expectations. It's one thing to commit to becoming the best player possible. It's another to vault into being one of the top Draft prospects and perhaps the best college pitcher in the country.
"It's completely blown me out of the water," said Gray, who met with the Houston Astros, who hold the No. 1 pick, during the Big 12 tournament last week. "I didn't think it'd get this crazy. I knew I'd get better, but I didn't think I'd be thought about at the top. But I've worked really hard for it."
That confidence is riding high as Oklahoma readies for postseason play as the No. 2 seed in the regional hosted by Virginia Tech. Gray is relieved to have that to focus on instead of sitting idly waiting to find out his Draft fate on Thursday.
"I don't think it's that hard to deal with," Gray said. "People told me it was going to be hard keeping focus on the year with the Draft. The Draft mainly will take care of itself, if I go out and help my team win. Nothing's changed."
Perhaps the only thing that has truly changed has been his perspective. Norman is not far from Moore, recently decimated by a tornado. Gray is a native Oklahoman and there's no question he and his Sooners teammates have taken everything they've seen with them into postseason play. Facing a bases-loaded jam or worrying about Draft status doesn't seem to be quite as crucial these days.
"It's had a huge impact on us and on me personally," said Gray, who noted that his team has lended a helping hand when possible. "Oklahoma is a giant small town. It's devastating. There are people you know directly who have been impacted. It doesn't feel like reality until it impacts your life. I can't explain how terrible it is.
"I think it does add a little motivation to the guys, especially the ones from Oklahoma. It's something we take seriously."
The First-Year Player Draft will take place on June 6-8, beginning with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network on Thursday, June 6, at 6 p.m. ET. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 7 p.m., with the top 73 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. Rounds 3-10 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 7, beginning with a preview show at 12:30 p.m., and Rounds 11-40 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 8, starting at 1 p.m.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 100 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. You can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.