Oakland Athletics 2016 Preview: RHP Sonny Gray, Ace

Sep 2, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) pitches the ball against the Los Angeles Angels during the fourth inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 2, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) pitches the ball against the Los Angeles Angels during the fourth inning at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports /

Oakland Athletics 2016 Preview: RHP Sonny Gray

When it comes to Oakland Athletics’ ace Sonny Gray, there are few questions, but plenty of statistics to answer them.

He was named the starter for Opening Day four weeks before the start of the season. This, of course, came as a shock to no one. A’s fans know as well as anyone else the kind of pitcher that Gray is. Even on Monday against the star-studded Giants, Gray went 4 2/3 innings, throwing 60 pitches and striking out four. He’s the best in the business. If the Oakland Athletics make the playoffs, pundits may point to Gray leading the way. Is there anything that has not been said about the A’s beloved ace?

First things first: he was third place in the Cy Young award voting last year. To be placed among names like fellow Vanderbilt alumnus David Price and eventual-winner Dallas Keuchel is an honor in its own right. Not to mention, the person who scored third place last year in the National League was a guy named Clayton Kershaw. The numbers that lead up to this bronze finish for Gray include a 14-7 record, a 2.73 ERA in 208 innings pitched, 169 strikeouts vs. 59 walks, and a 1.08 WHIP. Those are fantasy baseball numbers, folks. He was also effective at limiting home runs: he allowed only a 0.7 home runs per nine innings, and his home run to fly ball ratio was a steady 71 percent.

In short, Gray is great. Just great.

Gray’s biggest success comes from his ability to throw six pitches. He has a nasty slider. He has a 93 mph fastball and a sinker. He utilizes on occasion a cutter. He has a curve and a change. He actually utilized the slider less as the season progressed, favoring his changeup instead. In fact, according to Brooks Baseball, his changeup got more whiffs at the end of the season than his slider.

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But what about the concerns people have about this upcoming season?

Now, Gray demonstrated that he is capable of being an ace in the first part of the 2015 season. His ERA before June 25 was 1.95, which is minuscule! But in his last seven starts, he gave up 25 earned runs in 40 innings – as well as allowing more home runs, even though most of those starts were at the Coliseum.

Many will point to his FIP (3.45) and BABIP (.256), which suggest that Gray was somewhat lucky thanks to (ironically) the defense behind him and cheap hits. Granted, Bob Melvin is excellent at utilizing defensive shifts despite his error-laden defense from last year, and that may have prevented some hits with or without Gray on the mound. But there are some small issues that come to a head as Gray is projected by a composite set of sources to have a much higher ERA (above 3.00) and WHIP (around 1.20) than last year.

Here’s the argument against fantasy projections: Gray has a monstrous slider. This slider has hitters swinging and missing at it 23.4 percent of the time. Additionally, he has been at or near the league leaders of ERA since 2014. He continues to get marginally better with runners in scoring position, as his left-on-base percentage has risen from 74.9 percent in 2013 to 76.8 percent in 2015. He will continue to get the ball down, as his ground ball percentage was the sixth best in the American League at 54.03 percent. He has doubled his slider usage since 2014 (8.3 percent vs 17 percent in 2015), so as long as hitters can’t figure out how to hit it, he will continue to use it.

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? €œAs long as hitters can’t figure out to hit it.

Then again, there are pitchers who used their slider far more than Gray who have had great success. Yu Darvish‘s slider in 2013 was thrown 37.4 percent of the time, as he cruised to a 2.83 ERA and a second-place Cy Young finish. In 2014, Clayton Kershaw threw his slider 29.4 percent of the time and won an MVP award. And last year, the NL Cy Young Winner, Jake Arrieta, threw his slider a comparable 28.8 percent of the time.

In short, if Gray can figure out how to vary his pitch usage to get more whiffs on his slider, he will be very successful. The A’s are counting on him to be their linchpin to any kind of success, and if they can get Gray to spell the new relief staff with another innings total of over 200 this year, Melvin can better support the rest of the rotation. Plus, any guy who placed merely third in an award race will be hungry for it again the next season.

Bold Prediction: Gray wins the Cy Young Award this year.

Next: Oakland Athletics: Who Is RHP Andrew Triggs?

Will Sonny Gray win the Cy Young this year? Will he beat out reigning defender Dallas Keuchel? Comment below!