Sonny Gray: The Anti-Chris Sale

Earlier this week, I took a look at the AL Cy Young race, utilizing batted-ball metrics to address the respective candidacies of David Price, Dallas Keuchel and Chris Sale. To make a long story short, I concluded that Sale’s strikeout-to-walk (K/BB) superiority, along with solid contact management skills that have been obscured by his horrendous team defense, placed him on top. Some readers expressed incredulity in the comment section, not believing that even the worst defense in the game could cost a pitcher one full point of ERA.

Today, let’s look at the counterweight to Chris Sale, Sonny Gray. Though he wasn’t quite the same guy in the second half as he was in the first, he has wrapped up a very strong campaign, especially in the more traditionally accepted statistical categories. He’ll finish third in the AL in ERA (2.73) and is likely to receive his share of down-ballot Cy Young votes, possibly enough to nose out Sale for third place overall. Sale’s ERA is 0.78 higher than his FIP, and as we saw the other day, 1.02 higher than his “tru” ERA, which incorporates Statcast batted ball data. Gray finishes 2015 with an ERA 0.73 lower than his FIP. What gives, and what is the true talent level exhibited by Gray this season?

I first saw Sonny Gray pitch in the summer between his junior and senior year of high school, at the East Coast Pro Showcase, then held in Wilmington, NC. He was a standout, in more ways than one. He stood five inches or more shorter than his pitching contemporaries, and likely weighed about 155 pounds soaking wet. His stuff, however, stood out even more than his slight stature; he ran his fastball into the upper-90s and spun a tight, hard curve ball. His arm action, delivery and athleticism were all solid. For me, he was the best pitcher at the showcase, and a surefire #1 pick the next summer.

Gray committed shortly thereafter to Vanderbilt, making it very clear that he would attend, barring his receipt of an offer he absolutely could not refuse. He wasn’t quite as dominant during his senior of high school as he was in Wilmington, and no club opted to pony up a Godfather offer to a sub-six foot right-handed pitcher.

Gray was electric at times during his collegiate career, but wasn’t always at his best during his junior season, causing him to drop into the middle of the first round. The A’s were there to catch his fall at 18th overall, and have been thankful for their good fortune ever since.

He didn’t exactly dazzle in his minor league career, at least at first. He was jumped to Double-A in his second pro outing after signing, but then struggled through a difficult first full pro season in 2012, striking out only 97 batters in 148 innings at Midland. He made Baseball America’s Top 100 prospect list prior to that season, but never returned.

Each year, I compile my own ordered minor league lists of top full-season-league position player and starting pitcher prospects based on performance and age relative to league and level. These basically serve as follow lists, with the orders then tweaked based on traditional scouting methods. He didn’t meet the standards for inclusion on my post-2012 list. After a solid bounce-back season at Triple-A Sacramento in 2013, in which he struck out a batter per inning and posted a good but not great 1.44 ground out/air out ratio, he did check in at #62 on my list. Still, not exactly the stuff of which future staff aces are typically made.

He made 10 starts for Oakland at the end of that 2013 campaign, and was immediately superior to the pitcher he had been in the minor leagues. He maintained his Triple-A K rate, his grounder rate spiked, and he benefited from pitching in a spacious park for a club that valued defense. He has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the game since his arrival in the majors.

How much of this success is attributable to Gray himself, and how much accrues to these surrounding, contextual factors? Let’s take a detailed look at his 2015 performance by examining his plate appearance frequency and production by ball-in-play (BIP) type data. First, the frequency information:

Plate Appearance Frequency Data
Gray % REL PCT
K 20.3% 100 56
BB 7.1% 95 60
POP 2.5% 78 30
FLY 28.2% 92 25
LD 16.6% 79 3
GB 52.7% 116 87

Gray’s K and BB rates both sit squarely in the average range, with both trending down (K rate from a percentile rank of 68 to 56, BB from 71 to 60) a bit from their 2014 levels. His K/BB ratio is not special, especially for a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. He is clearly a significant ground ball generator; his 2015 grounder rate percentile rank of 87 is essentially unchanged from 90 in 2014. Conversely, one would expect his pop up (30) and fly ball (25) percentile ranks to be quite low; in fact, those marks are actually up slightly from 13 and 10 last season.

Then there’s his extremely low liner rate allowed, evidenced by a percentile rank of 3. Liner rates fluctuate much more so than those of any other BIP type; there aren’t many pitchers who can maintain such performance over the long haul. The early returns suggest that Gray has a chance to be such a pitcher, as his 2014 liner rate percentile rank was 26. While some regression should be expected from his rock-bottom 2015 liner rate, perhaps less should be expected from Gray as compared to many of his peers.

Gray’s BIP frequency profile is very strong, and it propels him above the average starting pitcher status that his K and BB rates would seem to imply.

Frequency rates can only tell us so much; to fill out the rest of the picture, let’s get a read on his authority level allowed by examining Gray’s production allowed by BIP type data:

Production Allowed by BIP Type
Gray AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA FIP TRU ERA
FLY 0.133 0.265 34 87
LD 0.645 1.073 106 107
GB 0.212 0.228 69 106
ALL BIP 0.276 0.403 71 89
ALL PA 0.216 0.271 0.314 69 84 2.73 2.67 3.46 3.22

The big takeaway here? Once adjustment is made for contextual elements such as home park and defense, Gray is transformed from an excellent contact manager into merely a good one, whose BIP frequencies are quite good, but who allows relatively authoritative contact.

Gray has allowed an incredibly low .133 AVG-.265 SLG on fly balls this season, good for a 34 REL PRD, or Unadjusted Contact Score. Adjusted for context, that figure moves up to an 87 Adjusted Contact Score. Chris Sale’s fly-ball Adjusted Contact Score was better, at 77, though he allowed much more damage in the air (.161 AVG-.473 SLG) because of a smaller ballpark and much worse outfield defense.

Gray induces tons of grounders, and the limited output he has allowed on them (.212 AVG-.228 SLG, 71 Unadjusted Contact Score) might suggest that they are hit extremely weakly as well. That isn’t the case, as context drives his ground ball Adjusted Contact Score way up to 106. Yes, the grounders allowed by Gray are hit harder than league average. He has been the beneficiary of strong infield defense, which encompasses positioning, overshifting, etc. Sale, on the other hand, allowed much, much weaker grounder contact — his ground ball Adjusted Contact Score was 74 — but again allowed much more damage (.292 AVG-.306 SLG) on that BIP type.

On all BIP, Gray has yielded only a .276 AVG-.403 BIP, for a 71 Unadjusted Contact Score that is even better than Dallas Keuchel’s. Adjusted for context, that mark rises to 89, a bit higher than Keuchel’s Adjusted Contact Score of 83. Add back the Ks and BBs, and Gray’s “tru” ERA is 3.22, 0.49 higher than his ERA, but 0.24 lower than his FIP. His ERA gives undue credit to Gray for factors such as his ballpark and defense, while his FIP doesn’t give him quite enough credit for his ability to contain authority in the air. Chris Sale is a superior pitcher to Sonny Gray in every way, though their respective ERAs would tell you otherwise. The difference between their “tru” ERAs (2.46 for Sale, 3.22 for Gray), actually is exactly the same as the difference between their FIPs (2.70 vs. 3.46). Both pitchers are better than their FIP, by exactly the same amount.

The difference in their average velocities allowed by BIP type is quite stark. Gray, with his 34 fly ball Unadjusted Contact Score? He’s allowed average fly ball velocity of 90.3 mph, in the average range. Sale is over a half standard deviation better than average, at 88.7 mph. Liners? Sale is over a full standard deviation better than average at 90.2 mph, Gray in the average range at 93.0 mph. Though Gray has a much more pronounced grounder tendency than Sale, the latter squelches grounder authority to a much greater extent; Gray’s average grounder velocity allowed is over a half standard deviation higher than league average at 87.2 mph, Sale’s is over a full standard deviation below at 81.5 mph.

On all BIP, Gray has allowed an average velocity of 88.8 mph, over a half standard deviation higher than average, while Sale’s mark of 85.8 mphis just under two standard deviations lower than average. There really isn’t much of a comparison between them in any regard. Gray is a reliably good pitcher, but Sale is a force of nature whose impact has been muted by the sea wall that is the White Sox defense.

The ultimate goal of baseball player evaluation is to separate the player’s true talent from the context surrounding it. It’s pretty difficult business, but there is an ever-increasing array of tools at our disposal to assist us in our efforts. Batted-ball data is far from perfect; in fact, in past articles I have focused on some of the aspects of Statcast that limit its usefulness, at least in the short term. It does, however, allow us to take the next steps beyond FIP and xFIP as we strive for more precise measurement of pitchers’ true talent levels.





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Jason G
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Jason G

Fascinating, thanks. I didn’t read the comments on the prior article but I find it slightly amusing that there are people who read Fangraphs who don’t think context matters.