“Grips are meaningless,” Oakland A’s starting pitcher Sonny Gray once told me. Maybe that’s why we haven’t yet had a good talk, despite calling the same clubhouse home half the time. He didn’t quite mean “meaningless,” it occurred to me, when we finally discussed his repertoire. But there’s another reason he’s found it difficult to talk the way pitchers often talk to me: He’s changing things from pitch to pitch, according to what he sees. That includes grips, finger pressure and pitching mix. It’s hard to say he’s been doing something different when he’s always doing something different.
It’s difficult to figure out the righty. His breaking balls, for example: One classifying system says he’s currently throwing more sliders than ever. One says he’s in a three-year high for curveballs. A third says he’s right about where he’s always been, but that his recent good stretch may have coincided with an increased use of his slider.
Is he throwing more sliders now that he’s healthy? Gray shrugs. “Even before I got hurt, I was throwing sliders, and I was throwing them at 88, 89 mph,” he says. No system has him throwing a breaking ball that hard. “Whatever people call the pitch is what they are going to call it. It’s a hard curveball, I guess. The grip is a little bit different, but it does have a curveball action.”
Here’s an 89 mph slider from a start earlier this year. It looks like a true slider, though, not really a hard curveball.
Once you think you have a handle on that, ask him about his hard curve. “When I get to two strikes sometimes, he’ll throw a three down, and I’ll throw a hard curve.” The “he” is Gray’s catcher. “We all know it’s a curve, it has the same shape, but sometimes I throw it at 85 and it comes out of my hand good that way.”
He mentions a specific hard curve he threw to Anthony Rendon recently that was classified as a slider but had the shape of his curve. “I threw one to Rendon and it was 85.6 and it was the same as my 81.”
Okay, so he has a slider, but it’s like a hard curve, but he throws it with different grip, and he also has a hard curve that he throws with the same grip as his curve. Maybe he was right that grips don’t matter to him.
Let’s look at the movement of his many breaking balls and see how many clusters we think we can see. Lumped in are all of his cutters, sliders, and curveballs from the last three years. Horizontal and vertical movement are represented by the x- and y-axis, respectively; velocity, by color. Here’s the link to the interactive Tableau setup.
It’s easy to see the slider and the curve in there. But look at that white area in between the two. Is that another pitch? Are we seeing a combination of slider, hard curve, and regular curve? We can’t call an 80 mph curve “slow,” necessarily, but it might also be a little different than that 85 mph thing. And then there’s the other possibility, that all this is just one pitch thrown a bit differently.
For context, consider a similar graph (Tableau) for a pitcher who throws all three pitches (cutter, curve, and slider) on the breaking-ball continuum — namely, Corey Kluber. Kluber’s data points seem more distinct, with definitively more white area between his cutter and slider, and perhaps less fuzz between his slider and his curveball.
Now let’s get even weirder. Gray is regularly throwing a cut fastball that’s being classified as a four-seamer. “It’s a four-seam fastball that I can manipulate, get around it a little bit more,” Gray said of the pitch. “I do it on purpose. It’s grip… I’ll grip a four-seam and if I want to make it cut a little more I’ll change the grip a little. I just offset the four-seam to cut a little more. Some of it is finger pressure. I’ll pull down a little more.”
Oh, really. Here’s an example that Gray pointed out: “Look at the pitch I threw to Brian Goodwin to strike him out in the first inning.”
And another to Bryce Harper on an 0-1 count.
So that’s a 94 mph fastball that drops like a slider… literally. Sliders with similar drops to those two pitches belong to Jake Arrieta, Jacob deGrom, and Max Scherzer. Scherzer’s new power slider and deGrom’s Warthen Slider sit in the low 90s. But not 94.
Is this like the quarterback thing? In football, it’s sometimes said that if you have three quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Gray knows all about it: “My college coach would never let me throw the slider because I had a good curveball, and he would always say, ‘If you’re not great with it, it has the potential to come together and become one pitch.'” But, let’s say you look at Gray’s 88-plus mph breaking balls, and compare them to the breaking balls that are under 85 mph. You actually get fairly distinct pitches. Among other double-breaking-ball pitchers, he would rank fourth in distinctness, right behind Jake Arrieta.
But that’s pretending Gray has two breaking balls when, in fact, he says he has three or four. So when he spends a year having (admittedly) lost command of his breaking ball, you have to wonder if this approach leads to more ebb and flow than your average starting pitcher.
Maybe the craziest thing — which is saying something, since we may have just uncovered four breaking balls for a pitcher who seemingly just throws a curveball — is that there isn’t necessarily a game plan for his fastballs and breaking balls. “All depends on the game,” the righty said. “I will predominately pitch with my two-seam or I’ll predominantly pitch with my four-seam. Flip a coin on the game. I don’t care about movement as much as I care about which one I can throw strikes with. The other day I was throwing my four-seam wherever I wanted to do, so I just threw it.”
He mentioned something fascinating about his pitching mix. “No one every really knows what I’m throwing because me and the catcher just kind of know, in certain counts, or talking in the dugout,” he pointed out. “Guys a lot of times aren’t sure what I’m pitching.” He’s hard to scout because he can make these fine adjustments on the mound.
Is this something we can see in other pitchers? I think of Lance Lynn’s many fastballs or that time Jaime Garcia told me he makes minute changes to his fastball on the fly. Maybe this is a way to identify people who can beat their metrics and get soft contact based on fastball manipulation. “That’s what I like about throwing fastballs when they are looking for it, but they don’t know what it’s going to do,” said Gray, appropriately.
Unfortunately, there’s no strong relationship between the variance in speed or movement on the fastball and outcomes like ERA, FIP, ERA minus FIP, soft percentage, or exit velocity. Though there are some statistically significant relationships that have the hint of a negative relationship between the two — the possibility, that is, that varying fastballs leads to weaker contact — none of the r-squared relationships rise over the number one. In other words, the standard deviation of a pitchers’ fastball movement or velocity explains less than 1% of his exit velocity.
In any case, it’s true that Gray (a) is in the top 10% when it comes to varying the horizontal movement on his fastballs since 2014 and (b) he probably has four breaking balls. So when you say that he’s just a fastball/breaking ball guy, you’re selling him short. He’s really a four-seam, two-seam, cut fastball, slider, power curve, curve, change guy.
Gray had a tough year last year due to the failings of his body. “When I’m not healthy I can’t do what I want to do with the baseball,” he said. Now that he’s healthy again, we get to see him chop it up. He might throw a 94 mph slider, a 90 mph changeup, an 85 mph power curve, or a 80 mph regular curve. If it’s hard for us to tell what’s going on exactly — “I don’t know what it looks like in the numbers, but I know what it looks like in person,” he said — imagine stepping into the box.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.