Compact Righty Sonny Gray Lands a Compact Deal With the Cardinals

Sonny Gray
Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

On the heels of their worst record since 1990, the Cardinals have made early splashes in the free-agent market, adding Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn in moves intended to stabilize their underperforming rotation in unspectacular fashion. On Monday, they made a much more impactful addition, signing Sonny Gray via a three-year, $75 million deal.

Gray, who turned 34 on November 7 and who spent the past two years with the Twins, is fresh off a one of the best seasons of his 11-year career. You wouldn’t know it by his pedestrian 8–8 won-loss record — he didn’t get good support from either his offense or his bullpen — but he made his third All-Star team and finished second to Gerrit Cole in the AL Cy Young voting. In 32 starts and 184 innings (his highest total since 2015), he posted an AL-best 2.83 FIP, placed second to Cole with a 2.79 ERA, and tied with Kevin Gausman for the AL lead with a career-high 5.3 WAR (0.1 more than Cole). All told, it was an ideal campaign for a player hitting free agency.

It’s not hard to spot two big reasons for Gray’s stellar campaign: better health and a reconfigured arsenal. He made just 50 starts in 2021–22 with the Reds and Twins, taking three trips to the injured list in each of those seasons; in ’21, he missed time due to strains of his mid-back, groin, and rib cage, and in ’22, it was his right pectoral and right hamstring (twice). He’s made at least 30 starts in a season just once in the past eight years (31 in 2019), averaging 26 starts and 147 innings in the seven full-length seasons in that span. While it’s possible the Twins just caught lightning in a bottle, he did overhaul his offseason program, as he explained last February following a season in which he felt unprepared after the end of the lockout:

“Started earlier. Changed up a little bit, for sure. Worked out. Physically tried to get stronger. Throwing was earlier. Eating habits. Vitamin habits,” Gray said. “Doing things that I’ve seen people do and I’ve learned from other people and other guys to get farther along in their career. Just changing habits and consciously being aware (that) it’ll pay off in the long run.”

As the Reds’ union representative during the negotiations for the Collective Bargaining Agreement that ended the lockout (shortly after which he was traded), Gray didn’t throw a single bullpen session during the 2021–22 offseason and then battled multiple injuries. By his estimate, he came to camp this past spring having thrown “about 15” bullpen sessions, and the effort clearly paid off.

Gray’s four-seam fastball perked up to a 92.9 mph average, his highest since 2020, but he’s a pitcher who relies more on spin, command, and deception than velocity. He did his best to shake things up in 2023 by adding a cutter and a changeup (both of which he’d thrown intermittently in the past according to Statcast but which accounted for just 20 total pitches in 2022), doubling the usage of his sweeper, mothballing his more traditional slider and dialing back the usage of his curve and sinker:

Gray threw the curve and changeup much more often to lefties, the sinker and cutter much more often to righties, and the sweeper more often to the latter as well. In June, Esteban Rivera did a deep dive into his remixed arsenal; the visuals make the whole piece worth reading, but this gets at Gray’s reasoning:

In this interview with Rob Friedman, Gray goes into deep detail about the shape of each of his pitches and why he thought it would be valuable to include two new ones, particularly the cutter, in his repertoire, and about the value of his cutter serving as an in-between for the two fastballs and two breaking balls. From the hitter’s point of view, doing that complicates attacking or locking in on one zone or speed. If you’re a left-handed hitter sitting on a four-seam fastball on the inner third, a cutter could move in and jam your barrel or, if it has a little more vertical depth, slide right under. The same idea can be applied for expecting breaking balls; the cutter can stay up and freeze you instead of having the level of drop or sweep of a curveball or sweeper. In addition, the cutter velocity is just a few ticks faster than the two breaking balls and a few ticks slower than the two fastballs.

Gray has has done almost everything possible to assure he maintains deception. His release points are consistent. He has multiple layers of movement both vertically and horizontally. He can vary velocity and movement within a given pitch. If you were to build a pitcher who doesn’t have great velocity but can spin the heck out of the ball, this is a darn good blueprint.

Though his performance regressed somewhat from the point at which Esteban checked in, when Gray had a 2.37 ERA and 2.53 FIP, the new additions produced his two highest whiff rates (the cutter was in a virtual tie with the curve) and Statcast run values:

Sonny Gray’s New Pitch Mix
2022 2023
Pitch % wOBA Whiff% Run Value % wOBA Whiff% Run Value
Sweeper 10.3% .230 30.8% -3 20.4% .114 41.3% 19
Cutter 0.1% .689 0 13.1% .273 28.2% 7
4-Seam 28.2% .289 15.6% 11 27.2% .352 16.4% 5
Curveball 24.6% .228 24.6% 7 16.9% .295 28.2% 4
Sinker 25.9% .311 17.9% 0 15.7% .359 17.7% 4
Changeup 1.0% .295 66.7% 0 6.7% .308 17.4% -2
Slider 9.9% .375 35.3% -1
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Gray’s sweeper ranked 10th among all qualified offerings in terms of run values and tops among all sweepers; nobody who threw the pitch even 100 times allowed a lower wOBA on the pitch. Meanwhile, his cutter ranked 15th in its class.

While his 24.3% strikeout rate and 7.3% walk rate were pretty consistent with his 2022 rates, Gray boosted his groundball rate from 44.5% to 47.3% (his highest since 2020) and more than cut his home run rate in half, from 0.83 per nine to 0.39, tops among all qualifiers in either league. There was a bit of good fortune involved there, as his contact stats (89.1 mph average exit velo, 6.9% barrel rate, 39.2% hard-hit rate) were pretty similar to 2022, as was his 3.67 xERA. His -4.3 homer gap between actual and expected longballs was the major’s ninth-lowest, and it’s worth noting that it wasn’t just a product of spacious Target Field; his rates at home (0.41 per nine) and on the road (0.38) were consistent, as were his 2022 splits.

Between Gray’s track record for missing time and his age — the oldest of any of the top-tier free-agent pitchers by about three years — it makes sense that his contract is for just three years. Aaron Nola, who will turn 31 on June 4, received seven even while coming off a less impressive campaign (4.46 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 3.9 WAR). Via Dan Szymborski, here’s a look at Gray’s three-year ZiPS projection:

ZiPS Projection – Sonny Gray
2024 9 5 3.33 3.89 28 28 159.3 142 59 16 49 134 126 3.5
2025 8 5 3.51 4.09 25 25 141.0 132 55 15 44 115 120 2.9
2026 6 5 3.75 4.36 22 22 124.7 123 52 15 42 98 112 2.2

The ZiPS contract projection is three years and $71 million, so this is basically right on the money. Gray’s $25 million average annual value actually tops Nola’s $24.57 million, but then there’s a longer decline phase built into the latter’s deal. When we compare the dollars per projected WAR, Nola comes in 52% higher ($12.6 million per win versus $8.3 million), but it’s not hard to understand why. The Phillies were obviously convinced that his 2023 performance was something of an aberration and expect considerably more value over the course of that deal.

For the Cardinals, who also pursued Nola, Gray joins a rotation that was brutal in 2023, ranking 26th in the majors in ERA (5.08) and 22nd in FIP (4.61). That unit has already experienced considerable turnover: Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty were traded in advance of the August 1 deadline, Adam Wainwright retired, and Dakota Hudson was non-tendered. Even in its restructured form, what’s left still looks rather unimposing except when it comes to stamina, with the returning Miles Mikolas (4.78 ERA, 4.27 FIP in 201.1 innings) joined by Gibson (4.73 ERA, 4.13 FIP in 192 innings) and Lynn (5.73 ERA, 5.53 FIP in 183.2 innings); with Gray in the fold, that’s four of the top 23 pitchers by total innings in 2023. Steven Matz is the likely fifth starter, with Matthew Liberatore the top alternative unless another pitcher is acquired.

As for the Twins, this is the second starting pitcher they’ve lost to free agency in as many days, as Kenta Maeda agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal with the Tigers on Sunday. Because they gave Gray a qualifying offer, the Twins will receive a supplemental first-round draft pick as compensation for him signing elsewhere, but they’ll have to add an impact starter or two to offset those losses.

Gray doesn’t solve all of the Cardinals’ problems. Even so, this is a nice, compact deal for a nice, compact pitcher, and it gives president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and vice president/general manager Michael Girsch a jump on getting their offseason work done.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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3 months ago

A reasonable contract for a veteran SP that pretty much nailed the ZiPS projection on the head? How boring…

3 months ago
Reply to  snakestl

Although, it’s impressive the Cardinals were able to get such a reasonable deal for such a highly ranked free agent so early in the offseason.

Last edited 3 months ago by Lanidrac
3 months ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Fans talk a lot about how poorly-run/stingy the Cardinals supposedly are, but prominent players on other teams want to play there. Gray probably could’ve gotten this contract from any non-Rays contender he wanted to play for, and if he’d waited out the market it seems very likely that he could’ve gotten a 4th year from somebody. Maybe even a 5th.

3 months ago
Reply to  shampain

Who’s talking about that? The cardinals have been one of the most successful franchises for like 2 decades now, despite being terrible last year.

3 months ago
Reply to  Claydv

Cardinals fans talk about that, constantly.

2 months ago
Reply to  shampain

Then they should try being fans of about 27 other teams. Most other fans look at the Cardinals management with envy.

2 months ago
Reply to  shampain

Cardinals fans are dumb then. They damn near make the playoffs every year.

2 months ago
Reply to  leftycurve66

They are extremely dumb. It’s hard to find anywhere online to discuss them without 100 people trying to whine louder than the last.

2 months ago
Reply to  jasonl

Cardinals fans are some of the smartest and some of the dumbest. There is also a loud majority of us who will whine about anything the team does (good or bad). Being associated with those people is easily the worst part of being a Cardinals fan.