Sonny Gray Is Leveling Up

Sonny Gray
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Pitching is complicated. There are so many layers to it, including mechanics, sequencing, proprioception, supination/pronation… the list goes on and on. Depending on a player’s personality and knack for including analytical information in their learning and development process, digesting this information can be a battle. Over the years, we’ve seen Sonny Gray progress through this experience with multiple teams; now in Minnesota, it seems like he is hitting his peak. As David Laurila wrote, Sonny Gray is evolving as a pitcher.

That interview that David conducted with Gray is a must read. Having the player’s perspective on how they’ve thought through their own changes and development experience helps gives direction to an analyst, and it’s clear in that interview that Gray’s goal is to have a pitch that moves in almost any direction. As somebody who doesn’t have overwhelming fastball velocity (16th percentile), it’s crucial that he stays unpredictable and deceptive. That hasn’t been a problem for him in the past, but this year he has leveled up his diversification. Below is a plot of his pitch movement chart in 2023 (top) versus 2022 (bottom):

Last season, there were essentially two tiers of separation: fastballs in one area, breaking balls in another. For the most part, there isn’t much negative blending happening within either pitch group. The two-seamer has distinct horizontal separation from the four-seamer, and the curveball has vertical separation from the sweeper. The horizontal distribution of the sweeper is on the tail ends of the curveball; Gray manipulated the pitch to have more or less sweep than the curveball to ensure that separation. This year, he has taken his 2022 arsenal, improved upon it, and added two more effective pitches in the cutter and changeup.

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.

It’s important to see exactly how Gray uses these pitches within the context of an at-bat. You can have all this movement and velocity diversity, but you still need to command each pitch and sequence correctly. I’ll start with an at-bat against a right-handed hitter.

Pitch 1 (0-0 count, four-seamer)

Pitch 2 (0-1 count, cutter)

Pitch 3 (0-2 count, curveball)

Pitch 4 (0-2 count, sweeper)

Pitch 5 (1-2 count, sweeper)

Gray has gotten his cutter usage up to 17.6% on the year; you should expect to see it only one or two times in an at-bat. But this at-bat against Yan Gomes is a perfect example of how the pitch allows him to progress with a four-seamer through to a sweeper. Gomes didn’t pull the trigger on the upper third four-seamer but did on a cutter that had enough separation to miss his barrel. Gray followed up with a curveball out of the same tunnel, and Gomes chopped it on the ground for a foul ball.

At this point, Gomes had failed to differentiate his swing enough to get his barrel to any of these pitches, and Gray still had the sweeper in his back pocket. The first he threw was backed up out of the zone, but the second was placed in the same tunnel as the other three pitches, and Gomes swung too early on it. Again, the cutter isn’t the main weapon here; it’s another layer to keep Gomes guessing.

Now, here is an example of how Gray used the pitch against a lefty:

Pitch 1 (0-0 count, curveball)

Pitch 2 (1-0 count, cutter)

Pitch 3 (1-1 count, curveball)

Pitch 4 (1-2 count, two-seamer)

This is one of my favorite sequences from any pitcher all year. After starting with a curveball out of the zone against Brandon Belt, Gray followed up with a cutter that stayed up. Belt was clearly prepared for a breaking ball of some sort based on his timing and swing path, but the cutter got above his barrel. Because Gray was able to keep the pitch in the zone, Belt’s eye level was changed, leading to him chasing the next curveball below the zone. With a 1–2 count and two bad swings from Belt, Gray could’ve gone in multiple directions but ultimately opted for a front-door running two-seamer at the knees. Why? Because Belt had showed Gray that his swing was geared for middle-of-the-zone loft; horizontal entry low was unhittable for that swing path if Gray could execute it, and that he did.

Gray’s -5 run value on his cutter is eighth in the league, right behind pitchers with established elite cutters like Kenley Jansen, David Robertson, Marcus Stroman, and Camilo Doval. To add such an effective pitch — a .231 batting average against, a .233 wOBA, and it doesn’t have bad splits, with a .153 wOBA and -2.4 run value versus lefties — into your arsenal this quickly is a career-changing development. All that, and I haven’t mentioned Gray’s changeup usage and effectiveness thus far (-1 run value). Having a sixth pitch with a .125 batting average against is a premium not many other pitchers in baseball have, even if you just occasionally flash it (and Gray has thrown it just 6.4% of the time).

Gray is on pace for the highest fWAR of his career and is a mere 0.4 wins behind the AL leader, Kevin Gausman. There may be some regression coming considering he has only given up one home run all season, but that is a skill he’s displayed his entire career anyways. If he can keep this up and stay healthy, he is in a for a career year.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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10 months ago

Would be nice if they let him pitch beyond 4 innings…

10 months ago
Reply to  LCPC

He’s only stopped at four innings twice this year, never gone below five otherwise. Averaging just shy of five and a half IP/G. And that’s while dealing with some minor injuries.

Last edited 10 months ago by EonADS
10 months ago
Reply to  LCPC

He has pitched 5 or more innings in 12 of 14 starts this year and he only has two 4-inning starts. But he has only gone 6 or more five times.

For as dominant as Gray has been this season, he really hasn’t gone deep. He is 17.2 innings behind Nathan Eovaldi in the same number of starts.

10 months ago
Reply to  LCPC

He hasn’t pitched over 150 innings in 4 years. Need to be careful with players who are prone to getting injured

OddBall Herrera
10 months ago
Reply to  LCPC

THIS – if he has such an array of pitches to choose from you would think they would explore letting him average more than 5.5 innings an outing.

It really seems like the Twins are managing the 2022 version of Gray and not the version described above