The 142-game High-A baseball season is nothing shy of grueling.
As the season wanes and the Stone Crabs make a playoff push, the toll on the body can start to force a decline, if players haven’t rationed their energy properly.
Second baseman Tristan Gray, playing in his first season in the pros — the only true position player on the team in that category — is effectively bucking that trend as he continues to drive in runs and send bombs over the fence. The former Rice Owl’s evolution and progress has been remarkable for a player at this stage of his career.
“It’s a big jump when you go from Hudson Valley (Low-A) to this,” Stone Crabs hitting coach Joe Szekely said. “To jump a level and (for) it to be your first full season, that’s quite an accomplishment for him. It’s always tough your first full season because you hear people talk about it and you think you understand it, but you don’t understand what your body goes through. It’s the swings you take in April and the swings you take in May that can come back and haunt you in July and August.”
Gray was acquired in February in a deal that sent Corey Dickerson to Pittsburgh, and leads Charlotte in both RBIs (60) and Home runs (13) entering Monday night’s game. In his first year in High-A, he stands one homer away from tying the team’s single-season record set by Jeff Malm and Alejandro Segovia back in 2013.
Gray knows his hot streak is something special, but it’s definitely not a surprise.
“I don’t go into a season thinking I’m gonna bat .500 or anything,” Gray said, who leads the Florida State League in doubles with 32. “But if I go out there and I try to win and the numbers show up, then that’s a plus. But at the end of the day, I’m just trying to improve my game and be as consistent as I can be.”
There are plenty are elements that play into his strong offensive outings, from general feel to a pitcher’s selection on any given night.
Gray, who says he’s a fastball hitter all the way, has 13 multi-RBI games this season. On Sunday, he set a career high with seven RBIs in a 14-9 loss to Dunedin thanks to two 3-run blasts.
“I got into a position where guys kept getting on and doing their part to put me in position to have that success,” he said. “I try to stay on the fastball as much as I can, especially early in the count. Once you get to two strikes in this league, there’s definitely pitchers that have really good put away pitches.”
He’s been one of the more consistent hitters for the Stone Crabs over the past two months, batting .248 with 28 RBIs in July and August combined. But it’s been far from a smooth ride for the 6-foot-3 22-year-old.
In 21 games this past April, Gray’s batting average fell to .181, and he averaged a strikeout every four at-bats.
Those forced minor adjustments helped Gray to change his fortune.
“He’s an intelligent kid,” Szekely said. “He has a good feel for his swing. A lot of times, especially when guys start to get tired, their mechanics break down because they start doing a little bit more than they should. With him, he’s got bat speed, he’s got strength, but sometimes less is more. When he gets in trouble he gets big with his load and gets off the fastball. When he stays on the fastball and keeps his load simple, he is dynamite.
“From April to May to June, July, he’s gotten better and better and his numbers have gotten better and better.”
Outside of the organization, Gray uses his father, Texas’ 2000 26th round selection Jason Gray, to check himself. Gray watched his father play college and pro ball as a toddler, but doesn’t remember much of it.
Nightly calls, help him keep his mind focused and his progression rising steadily.
“He knows my swing better than I do,” Gray said. “At the end of every day I call him and tell him what’s happening and what’s going on. It’s definitely nice to be able to lean on him and go to him for advice because he’s been through it. I definitely look up to him.”
Even with his early success in High-A, it’s been a learning curve. With the playoffs looming, his only goal now is to find some way to sustain his stellar play.
“There’s definitely ups and downs, but I’m just learning a lot about myself and learned how to get through rough patches,” Gray said. “When you’re doing well, you gotta continue to do so.”