NORMAN — Twice already, Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray's had his name called in Major League Baseball's amateur draft.
Summoned rather, high, too: in the 13th round by the Kansas City Royals in 2010; the 10th round by the Yankees in 2011.
Both times Gray balked.
“I didn't want to settle for something when I knew I could do better,” Gray said. “I really wanted to get to my personal best before I went to professional ball. There are so many areas I could be better. I really want to be the best I can.”
Now, in this spring of 2013, it may not get any better than this. At least at this level.
In truth, Gray's previous pro stock was built more upon the potential of a power arm attached to a power body.
Now, however, his pro stock — soaring toward the top of the first round — represents a blend of potential and production. Gray's junior season at OU has been nothing short of dominant, with his 6-1 record, 1.19 earned-run average and 71 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings evidence of his dominance as one of the nation's elite pitching prospects.
More evidence: Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein — who holds the No. 2 pick in the June draft — has taken a seat at Mitchell Park to check out Gray personally, along with a parade of scouts from any organization in need of a quality arm.
Which is to say, all of them.
“Big Jon's been great,” said Sooners coach Sunny Golloway. “He's really special.”
And he's a major reason OU appears special, ranked as high as No. 8 in the polls and among the top 10 in three of the four. Fronting the Sooners' series rotation, Gray has allowed as many as three runs only once (his lone loss, to Pepperdine) and limited five of the other seven teams he's faced to one run or less. He's struck out 12 in a game three times. And his 71 total strikeouts dwarf the 45 baserunners who have earned their way on, by hit or by walk.
“Not only that he can throw a baseball 100 miles per hour, but his presence on the mound is unbelievable,” said Dillon Overton, the left-handed complement to Gray in one of college baseball's best 1-2 pitching tandems. “He's got such a big body. And to watch him when he's in the zone, it's like we're in a different world, because there's nobody who can really touch him when he's in the zone. It's unbelievable.”
Overton isn't fudging, either. Gray can and does reach 100 mph with his fastball, although he works consistently in the high 90s. And that's not all, with a nasty cut-slider and solid changeup rounding out a full repertoire.
And it's the complete package that has elevated Gray's draft stock, a package that first started taking shape during the closing stretch of last season, when he won five of his last seven starts in helping the Sooners reach a Super Regional. Now Gray is living the dream; not the dream of a hot prospect, but his own childhood vision of starring with the Sooners.
“That was another thing that I wanted to do, play here at OU,” Gray said. “The cool part about that is I get to be a part of the program and play at the school I always wanted to, but also, my family is close by and they get to see me play.”
Gray first flashed his potential at Chandler High School, earning The Oklahoman's Little All-City Player of the Year nod and making the All-State Team. That's when the Royals came calling, to no avail.
He spent a year at Eastern Oklahoma State College, pitching well there, too, before joining the Sooners a year ago.
“For me, I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, always wanting to be a part of OU athletics,” Gray said. “And to actually have a chance to, it's a big deal. I love it. I don't take any of it for granted. I love every moment I'm here. It means so much.”
Even Golloway recognizes that Gray's time at OU is down to the final few months. And he jokes that he keeps that in mind when he makes a rare trip to the mound to either talk strategy with Gray, or consider a pitching change.
“I've got to be nice to him,” Golloway told reporters last weekend. “He's going to be a booster in June.”
Indeed, it's serious when someone like Epstein shows up at your game, although Gray said he didn't even know the man now charged with rebuilding the Cubs organization had made the trip.
Even more serious, Gray could go No. 1 overall, amid reports that the Houston Astros are developing a fondness for the big Sooner and considering taking him to open the draft.
Regardless, Gray vows to stay true to what got him here.
“It doesn't matter if I have a good outing, I'm always looking to do better,” he said. “I'm always looking to climb.”
Now, in this spring of 2013, and the months ahead, it might not go any higher.
Shades of Gray
OU right-hander Jonathan Gray is dominating college hitters and tempting professional personnel men, with his draft stock climbing toward to the top of this June's MLB Draft — maybe all the way to the top. The vitals on Gray:
Stuff: Fastball that sits at 94-97 mph and can touch 100; cut-slider that ranges from 83-88; changeup that runs low 80s.
Stats: Gray is 6-1 with a 1.19 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 60 1/3 innings. He's allowed 34 hits and 11 walks. Opponents are batting .167 against him.
Draft stock: Rising. Gray is now being mentioned for the No. 1 overall pick in MLB's June Draft, alongside Stanford's Mark Appel and Indiana State's Sean Manaea, two other noted pitchers.
Compares to: According to baseballdraftreport.com, scouts have favorably compared Gray to several successful pros — Detroit's Max Scherzer, the Mets' Matt Harvey, former Sooner Garrett Richards of the Angels, Pittsburgh top prospect Gerrit Cole. And then there are the eye-opening comps — Roger Clemens and Justin Verlander.