Sonny Gray: MLB’s Most Unexpected Ace

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Yesterday Sonny Gray pitched 6 2/3 shutout innings against the division rival Texas Rangers. This wasn’t all that unusual because Gray owns a sub-2 career ERA against the Rangers and is 6-2 against them in his career, including two shutouts.

What was interesting was how gray went about beating the Rangers this time. He walked 7 batters, struck out 10, but allowed just two hits and zero runs. The seven walks indicate he did not pitch particularly well, despite striking out 10 Rangers. Sonny seems to get himself into trouble with his control often, as evidence by his near-3 BB/9 for his career. The most impressive thing about Sonny Gray is not his improved pitch repertoire, 12-6 curveball, or his mid-90s fastball. His competitive demeanor on the mound and ability to escape trouble are his greatest qualities, and are what make Sonny Gray baseball’s most unexpected ace.

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In the bottom of the fourth inning of a scoreless game yesterday Gray allowed a leadoff double to Shin-Soo Choo, then walked the pesky ex-Athletics Kyle Blanks. A wild pitch, strikeout, and simultaneous stolen base put runners on second and third with one out. Gray then hit Carlos Corporan with a pitch to load the bases and setup what was sure to be a disastrous inning. With his composure intact as if nothing in the world could possibly go wrong Gray induced a ground ball from second baseman — and Saturday’s walk-off hero — Rougned Odor. Choo was called out at home, but the bases remained loaded. With all the poise in the world Gray got Leonys Martin to ground out to second base, ending the inning, and the biggest rally the Rangers put together all day.

The next inning the A’s scored the game’s first run and never let up. en route to a 7-1 series-winning victory.

Nothing about Gray’s heroics were spectacular. He got himself into trouble with his control, but then collective himself and got the ground balls he needed to avoid being scored upon. This was a turning point in the game as the A’s proceeded to pile on runs, as they’ve done all season long.

A pitcher doesn’t need to put up gaudy strikeout numbers or win 20 games to be considered an ace, although that helps. What Sonny Gray has done to put himself into ace territory is pitch his best when the game’s matter most.

October 5, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) celebrates after the third inning in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Detroit Tigers 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

His highest ERA against any of his four AL West foes ins 2.42 against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He is 16-5 against division opponents. In the 2013 ALDS agains the Detroit Tigers Gray took the ball in game two against Justin Verlander and out-pitched the veteran in the greatest game I have ever seen. It was his first career postseason appearance.

Most projections for Gray entering the season were closer to those of league average pitchers. He wasn’t viewed as being developed enough to take the next step. It is safe to say Gray is doing all he can to take that step.

Not much about his game has changed. He still strikes out less than a batter per inning and walks move than two batters per game. But what he has done with his pitch repertoire has helped him evolve and improve.

In the past Gray was simply a fastball-curveball pitcher. In 2015 he has been throwing his fastball much more often and his curveball less often, but his slider usage has picked up by three percent, balancing his breaking balls to make for a more effective three pitch mix. He threw his changeup almost seven percent of the time in 2014, but that number has dwindled to less than five, because it wasn’t a very good pitch.

He still throws a changeup, but by using it less often and balancing out his other three pitches he has created four above-average pitch offerings, as opposed to just two in years past.

By being less predictable in 2015 Gray is setting himself up to be more effective, and it has been a most fun transition to watch.

*Pitch quality stats courtesy of the good folks at Fangraphs.

Next: A's — Twins Series Preview

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