After a week of posturing, Yankees deal for Sonny Gray

(Due to an oversight, this piece didn’t post at the time it was written. Even though it’s three weeks later, we felt it should still go up on the site since Austin worked so hard on it. -SG)

It seems like the rumor mill had been predicting Sonny Gray to the Yankees for days leading up to the deadline, but as time went on, the question became — well, then why hasn’t it happened yet?

And the answer probably boiled down to the fact that the A’s had surprisingly little leverage in negotiations. You would think that the team with the pitcher with three playoffs worth of team control would be in the driver’s seat, but that just wasn’t the case. In fact, it was reported that the Dodgers and A’s “talked” about Gray just so that it could be reported, and so that each team could maintain some sort of leverage with the teams they actually wanted to deal with.

There is a reason why these teams were so locked in with each other — the fit was something close to perfect. The A’s are in the midst of a deep rebuild, and their path to contention isn’t immediately apparent in the next couple of seasons. So not only are MLB assets not as important to them, but those assets are arguably less desirable than minor league ones. Why would the A’s want players that are eating away at their service time and team control while the A’s aren’t contending? This also means that they’re willing to take on injured players and wait. An injured prospect, to most teams, would mean a depreciated asset that can’t play for the foreseeable future and comes with additional risk that they don’t return to their former levels. An injured prospect to a team like the A’s means a bargain opportunity.

Now let’s look at it from the Yankees’ side. They didn’t want to move Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier, and for good reason. Prospect rankings will fluctuate, depending on the source, but the consensus next tier included pitchers Chance Adams, James Kaprielian, Justus Sheffield, Domingo Acevedo, and position players Dustin Fowler, Estevan Florial, Jorge Mateo, and Miguel Andujar. If the Yankees were intent on keeping Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and all of their pieces from their MLB roster, then it was probably going to take three to four of the guys from this tier to acquire a controllable top-25 starting pitcher.

Brian Cashman has repeatedly stated that he thought the position player side of the core was much more set for the future than the pitching side, and he did not want to deal any of his healthy pitching prospects that were close to the majors and ready to contribute in the next year or so. That would cross out Adams, Sheffield, and Acevedo from the list. Now you’re looking at a trade chip cupboard of Kaprielian, Fowler, Florial, Mateo, and Andujar. The issue here is that Kaprielian and Fowler are both done for the season with respective injuries. This would be akin to having three $100 bills to spend, and two chunks of Bitcoin worth about $100 each. Because Bitcoin stock is so volatile, each chunk could easily be worth way less or way more than one of those Benjamin’s in the very near future, but there are some establishments that don’t even accept Bitcoin as a form of payment. Suddenly, the Yankees came across an establishment that not only accepted Bitcoin payment but it actually preferred Bitcoin payment because it could get them for less than $100 a piece.

Dealing with the A’s allowed the Yankees to keep Torres, Frazier, Florial (whom they are reportedly very high on), and all of their healthy pitching prospects. At full strength, the haul of Kaprielian, Fowler, and Mateo is arguably an overpay for Gray, especially if Kaprielian is showing the stuff he had post-draft and pre-injury. And a healthy Fowler can remind you of Charlie Blackmon if you catch Fowler on a good day. But it appeared the Yankees were never that high on Mateo, and they essentially traded three players that they didn’t necessarily want for a player that they absolutely did. That’s an extremely simplified synopsis of the trade from the Yankees’ perspective, but it means that it was a win.

As for Gray, the pitcher, he’s undoubtedly a boon to the current staff, and arguably steps in as the immediate ace of the team. Since his debut in 2013, among starting pitchers with as many innings as him, Gray ranks 18th in baseball with a 3.44 ERA and 20th with a 3.58 FIP. So he’s not a top-10 pitcher, but he’s certainly top-30, and maybe a bit more. That’s what he’s been so far in his career — what about looking forward?

Well, there’s both good and bad news. Which do you want to hear first? Bad? OK, if you say so. First of all, he comes with injury concerns. He’s been injured in each of the last two seasons. Yes, I hear you yelling from the back; he was durable in the two seasons before that, and every pitcher is an injury concern by definition anyway. But it goes further than that — Gray is a smallish, breaking-ball reliant righty that drops-and-drives with a high elbow. Smallish? Not necessarily bad on its own. Breaking-ball reliant? Not necessarily bad on its own. High elbow with an inverted W? Bad, bad, bad, even on its own.

Aside from the injury specter, there are also concerns surrounding performance. ERA estimators have him around the mid-3’s over his career, but that takes into account a context-neutral environment, not the deathly throes of Yankee Stadium and the rest of the AL East. He was also certifiably terrible last season and comes with a career K/9 below 8. His 7.75 career K/9 isn’t bad, but it’s far from ace-like. He also doesn’t limit walks, either, having never posted a BB/9 below 2.5. All told, he ranks 88th among qualified starting pitchers in K/BB ratio since his debut.

With that being said, he mitigates this by limiting weak contact and being extremely efficient. His career groundball rate is 54.4 percent, and he’s in the top 10 in that category basically every year. That also means he limits the long ball, which is extremely important when moving to Yankee Stadium. He owns a career .279 BABIP, which is looking less like a fluke and more like his norm with every passing season. His average exit velocity allowed isn’t elite, but it’s better than notorious non-hit-allowers like Chris Sale and James Paxton.

He’s also taken a step forward this season that seems subtle on the surface. The strikeout percentage is higher than it has been in any of his full seasons in his career, and the peripherals more than back it up. His chase rate is at an all-time high, while his contact rate is at an all-time low. Interestingly, his first strike percentage is at an all-time high, while his zone percentage is at an all-time low. It appears that he’s doing a better job of getting ahead early, then making hitters chase out of the zone when they’re behind in the count. That would be known as a recipe for success, folks.

Another interesting morsel is that Gray has been throwing his changeup a lot more this season, about double that of his old career-high in usage. He’s also throwing it much harder, at an average of 89.9 mph, and it seems to be working. By both shape and relative velocity it’s almost molded itself into Zack Greinke’s infamous speedy changeup, which has also produced excellent results over his career.

It’s clear that Gray isn’t pitching exactly the same as he ever has, so we may be witnessing a better version of himself than we ever have. Old Sonny Gray would already be an upgrade to the current Yankees rotation; new and improved Sonny Gray would be a massive upgrade.

I wish I could have a contrarian, indie, edgy take for you, but I am unfortunately going to have to agree with the industry consensus. This was a logical move for the Yankees that, given their current position and pieces, was something they had to do.

Photo Credit: Gregory J. Fisher / USA TODAY Sports

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