The Yankees’ No-Fastball Approach Might Be Breaking Sonny Gray

The Yankees’ biggest splash at the trade deadline last season was the acquisition of Sonny Gray. The Bronx Bombers thought they had acquired a frontline starting pitcher to pair with homegrown ace Luis Severino and Splitter Aficionado Masahiro Tanaka.

But Sonny Gray, after the trade in 2017, posted a 101 xFIP- and 107 FIP- — this after having produced a 75 xFIP- and also 75 FIP- with Oakland before the deal.

Sonny Gray, since the beginning of 2018, has a 132 xFIP- and 115 FIP-. Sonny Gray, on Wednesday night, gave up three earned runs, a home run, and walked five in 4.2 innings, recording a 6.67 xFIP in the process. Sonny Gray, the Yankees version, has been bad.

One, of course, is curious as to why he’s been bad. What happened to the guy who, at the time of the deal, could boast a 3.25 FIP, 8.7 K/9, 1.175 WHIP, and 3.13 K/BB ratio, numbers that were much more in line with his 2013-15 run with the A’s? On the surface, it appears Gray joined the Yankees and reverted to his troubled 2016 self. After all, after the trade, Gray’s home-runs allowed spiked, from 0.7 per nine to 1.5 per nine. Perhaps as a result of wariness, his walks spiked from 2.8 per nine to 3.7 per nine, as well.

It’s a plausible theory, but it’s also insufficient.

When Gray was with Oakland, he never threw his four-seam and two-seam fastballs less than a combined 55% of the time. Gray’s known for having a deep repertoire, but he always leaned heavily on his fastball and sinker to generate plus ground-ball rates. Let’s take a couple of examples. In June 2017, before the trade, Gray used his four-seam fastball 34% of the time and his sinker 25% of the time.It was, in all, a typical Oakland month for Gray. He posted a 2.95 FIP and 3.34 xFIP on the back of an 8.92 K/9 and 3.05 BB/9 in 38 innings.

In August 2017, after the trade, he continued pitching with pretty much the same mix. He used his four-seamer 33% of the time and his sinker 31% of the time, generating a 48.2% ground-ball rate overall. He posted a 0.6 HR/9 rate, a 3.79 FIP, and a 4.58 xFIP. That’s not great, but it’s also not terrible.

In September and October 2017, Gray began using the no-fastballs approach the Yankees are now making famous. By October, Gray’s four-seamer usage was down to 25%, his cutter usage up to 15%. Gray posted a 5.79 FIP and 4.34 xFIP, and his HR/9 spiked all the way to 2.29 per nine.

So far in 2018, Gray’s using his fastball and sinker less than 50% of the time combined, the first time he’s ever done that. He’s throwing his so-called “secondary” pitches at a career-high rate. The results, as noted, have been subpar.

Obviously, there are factors beyond mere pitch mix that can contribute to a poor month. In Gray’s case, however, it seems quite possible that moving away from the fastball has harmed a kind of important equilibrium that was present in his game.

Right now, Sonny Gray is walking 6.86 per nine. That is easily a career high. The obvious explanation would appear to be that he’s simply not locating his pitches; however, the data appear to suggest that he’s visiting the same spots with the same frequency as he has in his best years.

Here are Gray’s pitch locations for the 2018 season so far, per Brooks Baseball.

That’s an awful lot of pitches down below the strike zone. Gray isn’t missing badly, thought — and, with the exception of maybe a handful of pitches off the corners, it’s also not all that different from 2015:

The problem, however, has been the rate at which batters are offering at Gray’s pitches. Here’ 2018 so far:

Compare that to 2015:

The missing swings are concentrated both at the top of the zone and inside to left-handers — where his fastball and two-seamer, respectively, tend to be most effective. Without the fastball to tempt swings in those difficult regions, Gray has fallen behind as a result — and that creates two problems. One, it leads to walks. Two, it puts hitters in advantageous counts.

Because all of this is mere theory, there is another (small) theory that I should probably include here before finishing. It starts with an image of Gray pitching in 2015, his best season (against, of all teams, the Yankees).

And then it ends with this image of Gray’s windup — the same point in Gray’s windup — after the trade last year.

Do you see the hands? They’re closer to his body in the bottom image. Because I’m not a pitching coach, I can’t comment on the efficacy of what appears to be a relatively minor alteration. Maybe the change in mechanics is a good thing. But it’s definitely there.

In any case, the Yankees are conducting an interesting experiment in just how few fastballs a pitching staff can throw. But it always stood to reason there would be a pitcher for whom that approach just didn’t work. Sonny Gray might be that pitcher.

The problem is that Sonny Gray might need that fastball and sinker to be successful. Gray may have a great curveball and, at times, a wicked slider. But Gray might also be a pitcher who can’t be remade in a certain image. Gray was good because he was greater than the sum of his parts. Now the Yankees appear to be finding out what happens when you take some of those parts away. If Gray is going to rebound, he might need the Yankees to stop tinkering and let him be himself.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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5 years ago

A few thoughts:

1) I think it would be well-advised to have a predominantly fastball pitcher, to break up pitcher types, in series. Much in the same way I like them breaking up Judge and Stanton (forcing the pitcher to constantly readjust to significant height differences), this might serve to prevent lineups getting comfortable and familiar with approaches. Hitters often say that about knuckleball pitchers.

2) Is there a consensus on how Larry Rothchild is as a pitching coach? From watching games, he is one of the least proactive pitching coaches that I’ve ever seen. Mel Stottlemyre would advise pitchers as early as their second pitch of an inning, and Boone will often change a pitcher (after a blowup), before Larry even leaves the dugout.

3) Is the Gray w/ Romine vs. Sanchez pairing disparity a myth? Is the sample size big enough to tell? I have a theory that how Sanchez and Romine frame might be to benefit or detriment of certain pitcher types. In a vacuum, they both appear to do it well, but there might be data to show that framing is pitch type and pitcher dependent.

5 years ago
Reply to  insidb

to answer your 3rd question:

he’s got a 4.3 ERA in 14.2IP with Romine, and a 15.63 ERA with Gary in 6.2 IP

his K/BB is also better with romine, but it’s still only 16K/10BB, which is still really bad.

Maybe there’s a difference there, but with such a limited sample size it’s hard to make any definitive conclusions

5 years ago
Reply to  nenright

I assume that doesn’t include 2017 numbers?

5 years ago
Reply to  insidb

yeah, that’s only 2018. you can find the full tables in his bbref splits

5 years ago
Reply to  nenright

Thank you!

5 years ago
Reply to  insidb

So the contrast was pretty stark in 2017:

Romine – 18.2 IP/1.45 ERA/2.86K-BB/.543 OPS
Sanchez – 46.2 IP/4.63 ERA/1.94K-BB/.767 OPS