About a year ago, I remember thinking that Billy Beane must be feeling pretty good about having Sonny Gray, perhaps one of baseball’s best trade chips. Stephen Strasburg had just signed a contract extension, leaving few, if any, pending free agents around the league and little else available on the trade market at the deadline. With a cost-controlled pitcher, the A’s could sell to any team without being limited to major markets. If Drew Pomeranz was capable of fetching a top prospect in Anderson Espinoza, Sonny Gray was going to merit a haul.
It didn’t quite work out that way. A combination of ineffectiveness and arm injuries, perhaps one causing the other, left Gray with a poor season. A year later, Gray is pitching well, and he might still be that valuable trade chip I considered him to be a year ago.
I have some recollection of Sonny Gray being a top-of-the-rotation starter, an ace-type player. Then I look at some of his stats, and I can’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. There’s his 21% strikeout rate from 2013 to 2015, which ranks an okay 31st out of 89 pitchers with at least 400 innings. His 7.7% walk rate was 60th among those 89 pitchers — not that good at all, in other words. Then you look a little further and find the one thing that Gray did very well — namely, keep the ball on the ground. His ground-ball rate of 54% was seventh in the majors during that timeframe. It’s hard for opposing batters to collect extra-base hits when they can’t get off the ground. It’s impossible to hit it out of the park. Unsurprisingly, Gray’s 0.66 HR/9 was 12th best in baseball during that period. Opponent ISO was under .100, second only to Clayton Kershaw.
By FIP, Gray was one of the top-25 pitchers in baseball during that time. Add in some batted-ball luck, and perhaps skill, and Gray’s ERA- was 76, ninth best in baseball, right between Felix Hernandez and David Price. In 2016, things didn’t go Gray’s way. He might not be quite as bad as you remember. His 4.76 FIP was poor, of course, and he was allowing nearly double the homers he had previously, but he wasn’t awful, either. Oakland’s defense, one of the worst in recent memory, didn’t help things, as Gray’s ERA shot up to 5.69. A strained lat in spring training meant Gray would start the season on the disabled list. Out of sight, out of mind.
When Gray debuted this season, he pitched six innings against Minnesota, striking out four and allowing only two walks. He also gave up three homers and four total runs. In the four starts since then, however, Gray has exhibited all the traits that defined his success from 2013 to 2015. At 25.3%, his strikeout rate is actually better; his walk rate is just 6.3%. He’s given up just one homer, the ground-ball rate is at 62%, and his BABIP is .281. The contact against him hasn’t created much damage — and it hasn’t been luck, either, as his xwOBA of .247 is right in line with his wOBA allowed of .251, per Basesball Savant. He’s got a sterling 2.32 FIP and a good 2.62 ERA to match, and his best start of the year was his last one, during which he struck out 11 while adding just a single walk and lone run over seven innings against the Marlins. The start compelled Buster Olney to call him potentially the top target on the trade market, noting the potency of his slider.
So let’s talk about that slider. When things started to go wrong last year, Jeff Sullivan observed that Gray was throwing a slider and a curve that were somewhat similar. Before 2016, however, there was a clear difference between the two pitches. In 2016, the pitches melded together a bit, prompting Sullivan to produce this video showing how the pitches had devolved.
Now here is the same chart from this year.
It isn’t quite like the 2014 and 2015 image, but it isn’t 2016, either. Gray has most frequently located his breaking ball right below the zone, and he’s getting batters to chase it. When Gray was good in 2014 and 2015, batters swung at pitches out of the strike zone 31% of the time. Last year, that figure declined to 28%. This year, though, it’s back up to 31%. Better still, the contact percentage against Gray on pitches out of the zone has gone down from around 60%, which includes last year’s tough season, to just 53% this year. This has happened as Gray has thrown fewer pitches in the strike zone, down to 43% this season after sitting at 47% for most of his career. All this together means he is getting more swings — and then more swings and misses — outside the zone, leading to an 11% swinging-strike rate, the highest of his career.
That slider has gotten a little slower over the past few years, but it has gotten a bit more drop, as well.
|Velocity (mph)||Vertical Movement (in.)|
That slider, when located right below the zone, is going to look a lot like a strike as it approaches the plate, likely allowing Gray to keep that chase rate up. In his first three starts this season, Gray threw a total of 15 sliders. In his last two starts, he’s thrown 43, per Brooks Baseball. Of those 43 sliders, batters swung and missed at 15 of them. We’re dealing with a pretty small sample, obviously, but Gray just put up the best two-game stretch in terms of strikeouts in his entire career.
Hitters could adjust to Gray and start laying off pitches outside the zone. He’ll probably give up more than one homer every four games eventually, too. That said, if Gray’s slider remains a pitch that hitters chase — and he keeps up his ground-balling ways with both the four-seam and the two-seam fastball, like he has in the past — this might be the best version of Sonny Gray that we’ve seen. And we’ve seen some pretty good versions of Gray. If Gray can stay healthy, some team might be willing to pay quite a price for potentially two-and-a-half seasons of potentially great pitching. There could be quite a few pitchers on the market — and even a potentially comparable one in Jose Quintana in terms of contract — but if Gray keeps this up, Olney could be right, and Gray might be the No. 1 trade target in baseball when summer arrives.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.