Sonny Gray Is Back, and He Isn’t

You can expect that Sonny Gray will be traded. Something could happen to get in the way, but it’s likely that Gray will shortly be on the move. Although the A’s are just as close to a playoff spot as the Braves, who have been talked about as a buyer, the A’s just yesterday dealt away from their bullpen, and so it’s clear to see what they’re doing. They saw what the White Sox got for Jose Quintana. They know that Gray is the next in line, as a cost-controlled quality starting pitcher.

Now, Gray is not Quintana. Gray’s had more recent arm trouble, and while Quintana has club options through 2020, Gray’s controlled through 2019. The A’s can’t expect the same kind of package, because the contract matters, and because just last season, Gray was not very good. Still, his value has rebounded, now that he again has his health. Gray could well be in the middle of the next blockbuster. He’s back, but as a different pitcher from before.

Last season, Gray dealt with arm discomfort, and he wound up with an ERA dangerously close to 6. Talk to anyone, Gray included, and you’ll hear that it was just a lost six months. It’s a tough point to argue against, although with the benefit of time, it’s easy to see how there could’ve just been a lot of bad luck. Gray had an ERA in the upper 5s, an FIP in the upper 4s, and an xFIP in the lower 4s. His BABIP was higher than usual, and the same could be said of his home-run rate. Gray still got a similar rate of strikeouts, and he still mostly kept the ball on the ground. Everything simply went south — Gray didn’t feel 100%, and the cosmos turned against him.

Let’s accept that it was both bad Gray, and unlucky Gray. This year began with a strained lat, which isn’t how Gray wanted to get things started. Slowly but surely, though, his stock has recovered. Importantly, Gray is pitching, and he’s pitching without interruption. He’s throwing freely and easily, and all his velocity is there. Gray has what would be his best strikeout rate in years, to go with a career-low rate of contact. He’s thrown a career-high rate of first-pitch strikes, and opponents are still knocking grounders. Gray has said he considers himself more of a ground-ball pitcher than a strikeout pitcher. So far this year, he’s gotten both. His FIP is thus back in line.

I can even add on by saying that Gray has faced a tougher slate of opponents than average. The average batter that’s faced Gray this season has had a 105 wRC+. That’s Lorenzo Cain, or Christian Yelich. This is a minor factor, but a real one — Gray hasn’t exactly had it easy, so if he were to change teams, so that he could face weaker opponents, he could look even better. Gray hasn’t, say, been stomping all over weaker teams in the NL East. He’s pitched well, with the deck somewhat stacked against him.

Yet we can dig in a little deeper. There’s always more depth to be dug. Often, when an injured pitcher recovers and looks healthy, people say he’s back, and that’s it. He’s back to what he was. But Gray isn’t pitching quite like he used to. I’m going to use two tables to demonstrate. This first one considers how Gray has located his pitches, on average. I understand that a lot gets missed when you average all of a guy’s pitches together, but in here, you see Gray’s average horizontal and vertical pitch locations, by year, expressed in feet. For the horizontal location, 0 is set to the middle of the plate, while a negative number means inside on a righty. The last column shows, in feet, distance from the center of the strike zone.

Sonny Gray, MLB Career
Season Horizontal Location Vertical Location Distance
2013 -0.06 2.13 0.37
2014 -0.02 2.11 0.39
2015 0.05 2.06 0.44
2016 0.06 1.99 0.51
2017 0.24 1.89 0.66
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

It’s subtle, but, inch by inch, Gray has moved his pitches to the glove side, and he’s moved his pitches down. This is neither good nor bad, since we’d need more information, but between last year and this year, Gray has made the biggest change so far. He’s perhaps accelerated what was already a career trend, but Gray has focused on that low, glove-side quadrant. He’s not the only pitcher in baseball to do so, but this isn’t how he used to work. Not to this degree.

More startling, perhaps, is the following table. When Gray came up, he was known for his breaking ball. It was a hell of a breaking ball, that Gray knew how to manipulate. One of the narratives that came out of last season was that Gray simply lost his feel and command for the pitch. I don’t know why anyone would doubt him. He was, after all, the guy feeling and throwing the pitches. In this table, I’ve combined Gray’s fastballs (FA) and his breaking balls (BB). For each pitch type, you see zone rate, and run value above or below average.

Sonny Gray, MLB Career
Season FA Zone% FA Value BB Zone% BB Value
2013 53% 1.6 45% 7.6
2014 50% -1.4 45% 22.8
2015 52% 16.4 41% 14.9
2016 53% -11.9 31% -1.4
2017 49% 9.0 29% -0.3

This is what I think should raise a few eyebrows. Gray’s fastballs have been effective, in large part thanks to his two-seam variety. Gray throws fastballs that cut and fastballs that run, and that combination has worked for him. But look over at the latter two columns. You can see how Gray lost control of his breaking ball in 2016, but this year his zone rate hasn’t recovered at all. And the breaking-ball run value isn’t good, either. It’s not bad — it’s essentially average — but the breaking ball used to be Gray’s bread-and-butter pitch. Whether by intention or accident, Gray hasn’t thrown his breaking ball in the zone for a while, and that’s a significant change. It makes it hard to tell whether the breaking-ball control has truly come back.

As long as the sinker is there, Gray will keep getting his grounders. And with Gray throwing his sinker lower and lower, maybe that makes batters more willing to chase secondary pitches below the knees. But a pitcher who works so low won’t pick up very many pop-ups, and balls hit in the air will be more likely to get out of the yard. Which is all to say: Sonny Gray, right now, is an effective starting pitcher, yet he isn’t quite what he was in 2014 or 2015. He’s come away from his arm problems with a different style, and it’s hard to tell whether his breaking ball is all that consistent. These are just some of the countless factors teams will have to consider as they negotiate. It’s easy to think of Gray as a cost-controlled ace, because we used to think of him as a cost-controlled ace. I don’t know how much it matters anymore what we used to think of him.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

So if I understand you correctly, the facts as presented support two possibilities: Gray does have his breaking ball command back, as he says, and he’s just throwing it more out of the zone on purpose; or, he doesn’t have it back (and he’s lying to himself or us or both) and he’s throwing it out of the zone despite his best efforts not to.

Could you look at the usage by count to get a suggestion as to which of these possibilities is true?

6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

I’m not sure if this was a rhetorical question, or if i’m way off and not answering what you’re asking but, looking at his Heatmaps might help describe his intentions.