Every pitcher is a work in progress, it seems. They get to the park and they figure out what’s working that day and they adjust. But, on some level at least, the hard part is in the rear view mirror for Sonny Gray. The work he put into his mechanics in 2012 is done, and now he’s more tinkering than overhauling. In advance of Saturday’s Game Two start, we talked about his arsenal and changes, both big and small.
Look at his stats, and you’ll notice that 2012 was a weird year for Sonny Gray, and he readily admits it. “Last year, when I was trying to control my mechanics a lot more, it wasn’t working as well as it had been in the past,” Gray said of the velocity and bite of his pitches. The organization was preaching fastball command, and was trying to get him to be more direct to the plate, and to have a consistent delivery for all of his pitches. As a result, his strikeout rate tanked, his velocity dropped off, and even his control got worse.
Late in 2012, Gray and the team agreed: “Let’s just go back to challenging hitters,” and “go back into the mentality of just attacking” while still keeping “the focus on doing the same thing every time.” That isn’t to say that he didn’t benefit from the work on his mechanics. Take a look at some video that our own Nathaniel Stoltz found in his excellent writeup of Gray. The first is from college, and the second is from early 2013, when Stoltz saw him in the minor leagues.
From Stoltz, what to look for in the first video: “Gray used a bit of a hip turn, had a very long, slow delivery out of the windup including raising the ball over his head, had a pronounced back-leg collapse, and had a high-effort followthrough.”
And in the after video: “Well, that’s about the quietest delivery imaginable. It’s much more rhythmic from start to finish, and there’s very little wasted or exaggerated motion. Further, he’s standing taller on his back leg, which is good–at 5’11”, Gray can’t afford to lose any of the little downward plane he has by artificially shortening himself.”
Gray agreed that he benefited from the refining process, but he’s also happy to be letting it fly. His fastball is up to 93, and his curveball has its bite back.
PITCHf/x says he has a slider, but, well, let him explain. “I throw a curveball and sometimes just add and subtract — just one grip.” So that sounds like one pitch. “I think it has the same shape,” Gray said. Still sounds like one pitch. “Sometimes when you throw it a little harder, it might be a little smaller,” he admitted. Huh. Well now we know why the classification systems call it a slider.
But we’re left an existential question. If a pitch has one grip, but two shapes and two main velocities, is it the same pitch? Gray said his hard one was around 82 mph, and the soft one was around 77, so let’s put the x and y movements of all of his sliders and curves into two bins.
Those two pitches have very different movements if you pay close attention to the numbers on the x and y axes. His slow curve has double-digit horizontal and vertical movement, while his “slider” is much more modest. They both work well, though. The hard curve gets more whiffs, and his slow curve gets an average amount of whiffs for a breaking pitch and almost 60% ground balls.
Along with his four-seam and sinker, these pitches form the back-bone of his approach at the mound. But he’s still tinkering, especially when it comes to his changeup. “Some days it’s good, and some days it’s not,” Gray admitted. The last three or four times out, though, he thought it’s been working for him. Interestingly, the pitch has gained a little velocity recently — it’s up to 88 mph — and though it’s also lost a bit of fade, it’s not that kind of changeup. We know from recent research from Harry Pavlidis that a change can be good for whiffs *or* ground balls, and that faster changes are better for ground-ball changeups. The ground ball rate on Gray’s change is up a tick recently, up to 50%.
Hopefully, he’ll have his best arsenal with him on Saturday for game two, but if not, he’s got a long history of adjusting. “As a pitcher, you have to experiment with other things, but right now I’ve found something that’s working pretty well,” Gray said. And though he’s sure to have some butterflies when facing that excellent Tigers’ lineup, he doesn’t think he’ll do anything other than maybe take an antacid. “It’s a good feeling to have, it adds to the excitement,” he said. Let it fly, young man.
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.