Oakland Athletics: Time to Worry About Sonny Gray?


Oakland Athletics starter Sonny Gray gave up seven runs in his last start. Is it time to be concerned about the A’s ace?

The Oakland Athletics headed into 2016 with a lot of questions, but one thing was never in doubt: Sonny Gray was undoubtedly their star, the best player on the team, and the anchor of the rotation. So far this season, however, Gray’s results have looked less ace-like than usual. Is there reason to be concerned about these early-season numbers?

It’s far too soon to get worked up over Gray’s struggles in terms of long-term success. However, it is reasonable to question why last year’s Cy Young runner-up has already allowed 19 earned runs in 35.1 innings, posting a 4.84 ERA.

Gray has also posted a 4.53 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which means he’s not just getting unlucky. FIP weights home runs, walks and strikeouts in order to isolate a pitcher’s performance, taking a team’s defense out of the equation.

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That means that defensive changes, like the downgrade from Eric Sogard to Jed Lowrie at second base, are not what is causing Gray to struggle. He’s simply pitching badly.

There are three main concerns: Gray’s home run rate is off the charts; his walk rate is much higher than normal, and his extra-base hits have increased as well. Gray is getting hit hard, and it’s happening with men on base.

So what’s causing him to see worse results than he has in previous years? According to FanGraphs, Gray is throwing his fastball at a slightly lower speed than in previous seasons. This is a pretty insignificant change on its own, given that the drop is only about 0.5 MPH. However, at the same time, his changeup has increased to an 88.1 MPH average – a significant jump from his career average of 86.7 MPH.

The difference in velocity between a pitcher’s changeup and fastball is a major factor in both strikeouts and overall whiff rate. A changeup is designed to look like a fastball out of the hand, only to arrive at the plate much slower than the hitter expects it to. There are elements of deception and location involved as well, but most importantly, the greater the difference in velocity, the more effective a pitcher can be with his fastball-changeup combination.

Gray is now averaging a difference in velocity of just 4.2 MPH between his four- and two-seam fastballs and his changeup.

Gray is now averaging a difference in velocity of just 4.2 MPH between his four- and two-seam fastballs and his changeup. While Gray does have breaking pitches to rely on, his hard stuff and his offspeed pitches should vary in speed more than they currently do.

FanGraphs would suggest that Gray has greatly increased the amount of changeups he’s throwing this season. However, there is some discrepancy here – PitchFX claims he’s throwing 12.8 percent changeups, while Baseball Info Solutions suggests that number is closer to 10.2 percent. At either rate, it’s a huge leap from 2015, when he threw changeups just over six percent of the time. While PitchFX and BIS often disagree slightly on pitch rates, the wide gap between their numbers suggests that Gray’s changeup is so similar in velocity to his fastball that pitch trackers are having trouble classifying it. That means hitters who are waiting on his fastball are not as likely to swing and miss on his changeup instead, since it arrives at the plate at relatively the same time.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at a piece Alec Dopp wrote for Gammons Daily on former Detroit Tigers’ ace Justin Verlander. Verlander has been on the decline for the last few seasons, with the primary cause attributed to a decline in fastball velocity. However, Dopp argued that there was a secondary cause:

"“We’ve been told that a declining fastball velocity has had more to do with Verlander’s regressions than perhaps anything else over the past few years, and truth be told, this is a problem. But amid this far too over-cited velocity issue has been a deterioration to his changeup. The pitch has become his No. 2 offering, yet is steadily regressing in terms of its ability to miss bats in key situations.”"

While Verlander’s decline in velocity differential was extreme – from 10+ MPH to just over 6 MPH – Gray’s is still significant given what little margin of error he had to begin with. The changeup is designed to get swings and misses, and Gray’s whiff rate has fallen on both fastballs and changeups. In the meantime, his hits-per-nine innings rate has increased to 8.9, up from his career average of 7.5.

Although Gray’s strikeout rate has remained at about the same level, it seems that hitters are making more overall contact on his fastball and offspeed pitches. His batting average on balls in play is a bit higher than usual, but the fact that his hard contact rate has increased by nearly five percent in 2016 (compared to his career average) implies that factors other than luck are contributing to his struggles.

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The cause for Gray’s decline in velocity differential is hard to pinpoint, but it’s certainly something to keep an eye on going forward. Regardless, Gray has only made a handful of starts, and there’s plenty of time for him to regroup and turn in a stellar 2016 season. As with all small sample sizes, it only takes a few good games to turn things around. Luckily for A’s fans, that means there’s no need to truly worry…yet.