Hattiesburg, Miss., center fielder Joe Gray Jr. received a lot of preseason accolades, so teams have been wary about pitching to him.
The Ole Miss commit, a preseason American Family Insurance ALL-USA selection, is hitting .481 with 28 RBI and five homers, 11 doubles and two triples and 15 stolen bases in 62 at-bats and has been walked 18 times.
“He has to be extremely patient,” Hattiesburg coach Joe Hartfield said. “He has to draw a lof of walks to be productive at the plate, so we’re working on him waiting for the ball to come to him.”
The right-handed hitting Gray tends to pull the ball, so he’s also seeing gimmick defenses, with teams occasionally putting their second baseman on the left side of the field.
“We are trying to get him to go up the middle more,” Harfield said. “We’re asking him to use two-thirds of the field.”
He’s 6-3 and 195 pounds and his power totals would be higher except his home games are at cavernous Smokie Harrington Park. The right and left-field fences are 340 feet down the lines, roughly 380 feet in the power alleys and 445 feet to dead center, deeper than any major league park. Hartfield said he’s never seen anyone in 20 years hit it out in dead center.
It’s that same huge center field that Gray, with his 6.75-second speed in the 60-yard dash and 90 mph arm, patrols so well.
“He started out as an infielder, but he’s improved a lot in the outfield,” Hartfield said.
In 41 chances this season, Gray has made but two errors, and one of those came in a game where he was pitching.
Though he’s seen as an outfielder at the next level, whether that’s in the Southeastern Conference or in professional baseball, he’s been effective as a pitcher. Used mostly in relief, he’s 4-0 with a 2.78 ERA and 37 strikeouts in 22.2 innings.
“We don’t throw him a lot because he needs to make throws when he’s playing center field,” Hartfield said. “When he’s on and locked in, he’s as good as any pitcher we have. For us to win a state championship, he will have to be a game-three starter or a closer.”
Facing elite pitching at the National High School Invitational in Cary, N.C., earlier this month, he hit .364 with five walks in 16 plate appearances.
His likely draft status ranges from one of the top 10 picks to as low as an early second-round choice.