AFL Q&A: Jeff Gray, RHP

The Oakland A's sent a quartet of talented relievers to the Arizona Fall League this season. Of that group, right-hander Jeff Gray is the elder statesman. A repeat participant in the AFL, Gray is honing his own game and sharing his experiences both at the AFL and with the A's this season with his Phoenix Desert Dogs teammates. We caught-up with Gray in the desert.

The 2008 season will be one that Jeff Gray will never forget. Despite an up-and-down campaign at the Triple-A level with the Sacramento River Cats, Gray finished his year on a big up note when he received the call to the big leagues in September. It was the culmination of an impressive rise for the Missouri native, who went from being a little known 32nd round pick to a big leaguer in the span of just four years.

After pitching in four games with the Oakland A's in September, Gray was sent to Phoenix, where he is working on some mechanical changes and competing with the Phoenix Desert Dogs of the Arizona Fall League. It is Gray's second appearance at the prospect showcase. He was part of the title-winning 2007 Phoenix squad, as well. Gray, who has two rings with Sacramento for 2007 and 2008, is off to a strong start for Phoenix. In six appearances thus far, Gray has allowed only one hit in seven shut-out innings.

We recently caught-up with Gray and discussed his AFL season, his big league debut and more…

OaklandClubhouse: I wanted to see how the AFL was going for you the second time around and if it was different for you than last year?

Jeff Gray: The Arizona Fall League has been a big positive for me this year. It is a little more comfortable, of course, because I know what to expect. I've been there before, so that kind of helps. At the same time, I am down here right now working on some mechanics and trying to get situated for next year. I thought that this would be a good way of working on things for next year, facing some of the best players in the league. It has been, so far, really good for me.

OC: I heard from Ron Romanick (A's bullpen coach) that you have been working with him on some things. What are you working on in particular?

JG: We are working to get a little deception out of my throwing motion. We are trying to get a swing-and-miss pitch rather than have a little foul ball here, another one there, a broken bat single here, that sort of thing. So they are trying to get a little more deception in my motion and, not only that, they are trying to generate a little bit more power from my legs, trying to incorporate those into my mechanics more. We have been working on it a lot and we are seeing a lot of good things coming out of it.

OC: Has it been useful to have been able to go out with those new mechanics and try them against hitters right away?

JG: Yeah, it has been really nice. At the end of the year up in the major leagues, they pulled me aside and said, ‘hey, we've got to figure something out. How quick can we do this?' So I said, ‘well, let's get going now and see where it goes.' In my last outing against Texas, I took [the changes in the mechanics] out there and I kind of got caught in-between the two mechanics, so I didn't do as well as I thought I had been doing. But it showed me where I was at. From there, they decided that the Fall League would probably be the best bet for me so I could work with Ron Romanick on a regular basis and work in actually getting into a game environment rather than just throwing bullpens and flat grounds. You can't really get the feel of a batter and you can't get the feel of the excitement and the adrenaline of a game situation when you are just practicing. Taking the changes straight out into a game has really been helping me.

OC: This must have been an exciting year for you. What was it like when you got the word that you were going to be getting a September call-up?

JG: It was pretty exciting. I didn't think I really had a shot, to be honest. I kind of had a roller coaster year this year and I thought, ‘you know, if I don't get one, no big deal, there is always next year.' But it was a really exciting time to get up there. I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was a great time and a great experience. I actually know kind of where I fit and where I stand now and what I need to work on to be there for the duration of my career.

OC: Was it easier to transition into the A's clubhouse because there were so many guys on that roster already that you had played with in Sacramento or at various points in your minor league career?

JG: It was wonderful. I walked into that clubhouse and going to major league spring training, you meet most of the guys, but I knew a lot of them and a lot of them knew me. It made it a little bit more comfortable. Instead of a whole clubhouse of guys that you never knew before, like I ran into when I was promoted to Triple-A the year before – I really only knew half the guys on that team – but going up to Oakland and knowing pretty much the whole team was great. Everyone one of them was a great guy and they came over and were like, ‘hey, congratulations. I heard that you were coming up. It's great to see you.' It was a great experience to have and it definitely made it a little easier to adjust to the major leagues.

OC: When you made your first appearance, what was going through your mind when you were facing that first batter or getting through your first inning?

JG: [laughs] I couldn't stop smiling. When I finally got the call in Detroit to start warming up, I was like ‘oooh, here we go.' I was ready to go. My knees were crackling a little bit and I was getting a little tight just realizing that this was the moment that I had been waiting for. Once the top half of the inning was over and I walked out of the bullpen, I stepped on the warning track and as soon as I hit the grass, I took a step and took a deep breath and started running. Something just hit me that this was just like every other game, that this was fun. I realized that this was a good time. As I was running in and as I was warming up, I just said to myself, if I do something bad, big whoop. I didn't have a care in the world. It was a good experience and a lot of fun. Getting that first out made me relax even more. It was nice.

OC: Your first out was a strike-out, right?

JG: Yeah.

OC: Did that make you feel like, okay, I belong here, I can do this?

JG: It was more along the lines of ‘hey, I can do this. This is just like everywhere else. It's all about getting outs.' I got the strike-out on a curveball. As soon as I got that, I was like, ‘okay, I figured that one out. Now here comes the next guy. How am I going to figure him out?' The next batter ended up being Edgar Renteria, and I watched him in high school in St. Louis. [laughs] So that was crazy.

OC: Was that a weird experience to face guys like Renteria and Gary Sheffield that you would have grown up watching play?

JG: Yeah, it's a little shocking at times. After walking around [after the strike-out] and getting the ball back and then looking and seeing Renteria get into the box, it brings kind of a smile to your face and you are thinking, ‘okay, I'm here with the guys that I have been watching on TV.' When you are playing catch out in the outfield warming up and you see Sheffield's ball go over your head, it's pretty surreal. Those guys have paid their dues and I am just beginning my start, so I have a long way to go to get to where they are.

OC: You've been collecting some hardware the past two seasons with two Triple-A crowns and an AFL title last year. What was this year's Sacramento team like compared to last year? I know the 2007 team was a pretty tight bunch.

JG: In 2007, we were a close bunch and I think in 2008 we were even closer. We had a lot of great talent and a lot of great guys on that team. Everybody played hard. That's what they did. Once they stepped over the lines and the game was started, they wanted to win. It really came down to just playing ball for us. There weren't many things we could change or do, we just went out there and played hard. We had a string of bad luck here and there, but more often than not, we figured it out and turned some games around.

OC: You mentioned that you had a roller-coaster year in terms of your own personal performance. Did you take anything away from those struggles that you are using now?

JG: I've taken that situation and kind of thrown it away, to be honest with you. I've been really just working on this new stuff. A lot of the trouble that I got into was with my slider, and trying to perfect those breaking pitches to get to the next level. They kind of got me into trouble. I steered away from throwing my fastball, and that was a mistake because my fastball has always been one of my better pitches. Now that I can look back on it, going away from the fastball was kind of a dumb thing to do. I should have stuck with my game plan and gone after guys instead of trying to nit-pick around. Now it has all changed [with the new mechanics], so I don't have to look at that any more. [laughs]

OC: Do you have plans after the AFL season is over? Are you going to go home or stick around the Phoenix area?

JG: I'm probably going to stay around the Phoenix area and probably hit a couple of golf balls here and there. I'll get to hang out with my puppy dog that I had to leave for awhile and spend Christmas and Thanksgiving with the family. It's going to be a relaxing off-season, I tell you what. It's been a long season.

OC: Have you had a chance to reflect on where you are now and where you were back when you were drafted?

JG: I always think about where my career sort of started to take-off and I would have to say that up until 2006, it was just alright, but once 2006 hit, it kind of started to progressively get better and better. From that standpoint, moving to the ‘pen was probably one of the biggest things that made a difference. Other than that, I haven't really looked at it. I'm just trying to look forward and trying to get better so that I can be in the big leagues for a long time and maybe have a good stint and career there.

OC: You are part of a talented group of A's relievers in the Phoenix Desert Dogs bullpen. Do you have a competition between the four of you?

JG: No, we don't. We actually have a tight bond. Me and Jared Lansford and Andrew Bailey, I've known those guys since they got drafted, and from Instructs and the first part of this year was the first time I got to meet Andrew Carignan and he's a good old boy. We have this tight little group and we support each other and talk baseball. We've got each other's support and know that we are all sitting in the same situation. I've been there now and they are on their way. They have been asking questions and I have been able to answer most of them. [laughs]

It's all about getting our heads together and trying to figure this game out, which nobody really has, except maybe Brad Ziegler. [laughs] It has been a lot of fun to watch these guys throw and develop into what they have become. It's been fun.

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