Mid-season trades can be tricky devils. There is limited time for a player to accumulate value for his new team, often leaving the narrative surrounding the trade up to either early performance for the new squad, or, more dangerously, playoff performance. Neither assessment is ideal, since anything can happen in a short amount of time, making the whole situation even more unfair for the player, who had no say in the matter to begin with. David Price was supposed to finally lift the Tigers to World Series glory in 2014, Jon Lester was acquired to win (or at least be able to throw to first base in) a Wild Card Game, while the Cubs paid the Yankees a hefty price so that Aroldis Chapman wouldn’t give up a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis in Game 7 of the World Series. With this in mind, and with us accepting that the whole situation is especially unfair to a player who was traded to the winningest franchise in baseball with the largest media presence in the sport, it is important for us to recognize that Sonny Gray is doing exactly what he was traded for to do.
During Gray’s two best seasons he served as the ace of the Athletics’ staff. In 2015, his most valuable year, Gray ranked 14th in MLB by pWARP, after being 19th the year before (his second most valuable year). That is who Sonny Gray can be. He is not going to be a strikeout king and he is not going to blow hitters away with his fastball, but he can get ground balls, he can limit runs, and at his best he can be a top-20 pitcher in baseball. However, the 2016 season seemed to put a question mark next to all of these possibilities, as Gray posted a 5.69 ERA over 117 innings throughout an injury-plagued year.
When the Yankees shipped off two top-60 prospects (Jorge Mateo and James Kaprielian) and a potentially MLB-ready outfielder in Dustin Fowler for Gray, it was easy to be skeptical. Gray is a player whose FIP has never been quite as shiny as his ERA, and a half season of solid performance was not enough to erase 2016 from one’s memory. This July, Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs pointed out that even this year’s successful Gray was entirely different from the one we saw in 2014 and 2015. Sullivan explains that while Gray used to dominate with his different types of curveballs, he seemed to lose a feel for them in 2016 and began throwing more hard stuff. While this change is not bad, it is at least different, and different means that the small sample size of Gray’s performance from the first half of 2017 is even less representative of the type of pitcher he can be.
However, in the even smaller sample size of Gray’s time with the Yankees, he has continued to produce similarly successful numbers to what he did with the A’s. Yes, he is 3-5 with his new team, but c’mon, you’re on Baseball Prospectus right now, you know we aren’t allowed to care about that. In 8 games with the Yankees, Sonny Gray is already tied for the team’s 5th-most valuable pitcher according to pWARP. In 2014 and 2015, Gray accrued 4.6 and 5.2 WARP respectively, and is projected to finish 2017 at 4.4 for the entire season. His ground ball percentage is right at 50%, around where it has been his entire career, while his strikeouts per 9 (currently at 8.7 for both the Yankees and for the entire season) are a full batter higher than they have ever been before.
This being said, it is true that Gray is going about his business a little differently. Since he is known to throw a variety of fastballs and breaking pitches, we will look at his pitch usage percentage broken down by pitch type (via Brooks Baseball):
In his previous successful seasons, Gray was throwing less hard stuff and more breaking pitches. His pitch usage this year most closely resembles 2016, the major difference being what hitters are doing with those pitches. Most notably, batters are swinging and missing more than ever before, as seen by these whiff percentages:
While he was throwing more fastballs last year, hitters were not missing them. In 2017, his fastballs and his curveballs are missing more bats than ever before. Hitters are hitting for a higher average against his breaking balls this season (.199 as opposed to .146 in 2015), but once again he is making up for it with fastballs. Opponents are hitting .229 against the hard stuff, while the lowest they had ever hit before was .262.
And of course, Gray is still getting batters to ground out, as seen by his groundball percentage:
Gray’s pitch selection has changed this year, and in fact varies significantly from game to game. In his first start with the Yankees, Gray threw 80 pitches that Brooks Baseball classifies as hard, while in his August 20th outing at Fenway he only threw 39 while throwing 10 more pitches overall. The pitches are different, but the results are the same, as Gray has put up an ERA of 2.66 for the Yankees that nearly matches his Deserved Run Average of 2.72. These signs all point to Gray being a player who can feel his way through a start, throwing whatever pitch variation is needed to get the grounders he is so skilled at producing.
Sonny Gray may not be the key ingredient that propels the Yankees to the World Series in 2017, but he has undoubtedly been a valuable performer for his new team, and really that is all anyone can expect of him. Well, that, and maybe a couple perfect games in the playoffs – c’mon, is that too much to ask??
Photo Credit: Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports