(Photo via the Le Moyne Dolphins’ website, seen here)
The Division II Northeast-10 conference has produced a handful of major league players in recent years, although those players (such as Ryan O’Rourke, Steve Hathaway, and Andy Parrino) have tended to be late-round draft choices who entered professional ball with little fanfare. That should change in 2018, with the Le Moyne Dolphins’ Josiah Gray currently on the outskirts of the top 100 draft prospects in the nation according to Baseball America. With All-America honors and success in summer college baseball’s most prestigious league under his belt, Gray is firmly on the radar for professional scouts, with a change in role this season offering big upside both for the Dolphins’ upcoming season and his personal prospect status.
After posting a 0.63 ERA and a sparkling 22:2 strikeout to walk ratio as Le Moyne’s closer (while simultaneously leading the team in games played as a shortstop) in 2017, Gray will transition to starting pitching this season, where scouts are expected to be in attendance regularly. With an athletic 6-foot frame and a mid-90s fastball, it is not hard to see why. Such a rise, however, would have been impossible to predict just two years ago when Gray was struggling to catch the attention of collegiate programs – ironically, because he did not have eye-catching velocity.
“He had incredible mound presence and poise, and he had pinpoint control, but what he didn’t have was a 90-mph fastball,” recalled Pete Annunziata, who coached Gray at New Rochelle High School in Eastern New York. “In New York high schools, [take an 85-mph fastball] with pinpoint control and a breaking ball that you can throw for a strike, and you’re going to be very good, but you’re not going to draw the attention of any Division I coaches.”
In fact, it was actually as an infielder that Gray caught the attention of Dolphins’ head baseball coach Scott Cassidy. “He played some good shortstop, he had a pretty loose arm, and he was wiry at the time with some wide shoulders, so you looked at his arm already,” Cassidy remembered. “At the time, he was probably only 82 [mph] or so off the mound, but you looked at his athleticism, and you could see that, once he filled out, it was going to happen. But who knew it was going to happen like this?”
Indeed, he has steadily improved his velocity throughout his time in college, touching 94 mph in his freshman season before reaching 97 last year. Gray attributes that dramatic spike to physical maturation and a more fluid delivery, the result of a weight training program comprising mainly squats and deadlifts to “prepare my kinetic chain better.”
That impressive velocity was on display in the Cape Cod League (CCBL) last summer, where Gray pitched 13 relief innings for the Chatham Anglers. While his 4.84 ERA in that abbreviated stint is unimpressive, his 21:3 strikeout-walk ratio is a better reflection of his ability to dominate opposing hitters and to control the strike zone. Despite working one or fewer innings in 10 of his 13 appearances, he recorded at least one strikeout in each, including multi-punch-out performances in nine of them.
Had he performed well or not, Gray’s selection to the CCBL would have been, in and of itself, a confirmation of how far he has come in such a short time, as he was finally on the same footing as players from some of the nation’s top programs.
“That experience was second to none,” he said. “It was unbelievable, coming from a small college and a small high school. When I actually got the interest, it was like ‘Wow, this is actually happening for me.’ Going out there and performing, it was a statement that ‘Wow, I can play with these guys that you see on TV.’”
That realization is particularly meaningful for a player who only received a single scholarship offer out of high school. “There were a few (other) colleges interested, but nothing ever garnered an offer,” Gray admitted. “Coach Cassidy came around, and he showed the most interest out of anyone. It was clear that that offer was where I needed to be.” Is that lack of interest something that still bothers him?
“It’s definitely a chip on my shoulder, because guys always question you if you’re not from these top-25 schools. But now, (I know) that I’m in the same spot, that I can hang with a kid from the University of North Carolina or from Florida State University. It’s a reassurance.”
There is, of course, quite a bit of work to be done. Both player and coach acknowledged the challenges that come with transitioning to a starting pitcher.
“As much exposure as he’s had, he’s still got a lot of work to do,” Cassidy noted. “Since he’s been here, he’s really been trying to work on his offspeed pitches to complement his fastball, and he’s making pretty good strides with that. His command is good, his velocity is good, but the only question now is if he can maintain the velocity as a starter. I don’t think he’ll have a problem with it, but I can’t imagine that he’s going to be throwing as hard as he did as a closer, obviously.” Gray echoed those concerns, citing continued “fine-tuning” of his offspeed pitches and an ability to hold his fastball velocity for 5-7 innings per start as his top personal goals for this season.
For his two most recent head coaches, Gray’s makeup should only enable him to exceed expectations. “What’s great about him is he wants to be the best, so you can see that fire, and when you give him a challenge to do something, he really takes after it, and he won’t stop until he’s better than the next guy,” Cassidy said in lauding Gray’s work ethic. That plus makeup has carried over since high school.
“The number one thing that stands out to me in his intelligence,” Annunziata replied when asked what struck him most about Gray on the field. “When he’s on the mound, the guy who’s calling pitches never has to worry. You always feel like this guy has got his act together out there….He doesn’t really yell and scream and stuff like that. He just gets really locked in and has that laser focus, which was so impressive.” With the mentality to match his physical gifts, Gray should have a promising professional future, particularly if he proves himself capable of handling the transition to starting.
As Cassidy noted, not only are scouts more interested in players that they believe capable of starting games at the next level, his having a more consistent routine will allow him to get more exposure from MLB organizations. With a small-school program such as Le Moyne, scouts were reluctant to flock to games on the uncertain chance that the Dolphins would turn to Gray to protect a lead in the ninth inning. With a more rigid schedule next season, he will be in the public eye more than ever before.
While Gray is aware of what could lie ahead personally, his primary concern is on the upcoming season. “I’m not focused on that individual stuff right now,” he said of his draft stock. “I want to win a conference ring. That should be at the forefront of every one of my teammates’ minds right now. This is one of our most promising years, and [winning] will open up those other doors.”
He was quick to note that the program has not had as much recent success as they had hoped, having quickly been eliminated in the NE10 conference tournament last season, and failing to qualify for the NCAA D II tournament in both of Gray’s years on campus. With Gray assuming a greater share of innings this season, Le Moyne may be in its best position for team success as it has been since they won the conference tournament back in 2012. At the very least, the school and the conference will have one of its most exciting prospects in recent memory. “I’m looking forward to the spring, and I’m looking forward to the future, testing my potential in baseball,” Gray stated. “What I do as a baseball player will define my future on my journey to the major leagues.”