Sonny Gray is Struggling, but All is not Lost

In January, the New York Daily News published a column speculating on which starting pitchers the Yankees could add during July’s trade deadline. Seven months away. Before a pitch had been thrown at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida. Before Joe Kelly and Tyler Austin reignited the bitterness in a decades-old rivalry.

Before Sonny Gray became the broken link in an otherwise sturdy chain.

With the renowned fall-off of nearly all pitchers when facing a lineup for the third time in one night, even the casual fan can criticise a Manager’s decision to leave a starter in past the fifth inning with objective evidence. With the strikeout prowess of the Yankees’ bullpen, peripherals suggesting a bit of bad luck early, and the slow starts of Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle (DL), even stronger evidence supporting bullpen reliance will emerge as the Yankees trek towards October.

Severino and Tanaka would headline a Yankees’ playoff rotation. After that, things get interesting. CC Sabathia has more than earned consideration for a spot, but expectations have to be tempered. That brings consideration to Sonny Gray and whether his early struggles are a genuine reason for concern to any Yankees fan already thinking of how many layers are necessary to combat New York’s October chill.

2018 Sonny Gray isn’t a fresh topic. Relevant entries into the saga already exist.

At the beginning of the season, BP Bronx’s very own Derek Albin noticed a change in Gray’s pitch usage, one that aligns itself with the philosophy of so many other pitchers across the league: less fastball, more breaking ball.

Not only more breaking balls but different breaking balls. Gray’s curveball-slider usage this year resembles his early days with Oakland in 2013 when he used his curveball a quarter of the time. The former Vanderbilt product’s tendency to shy away from two-seam fastball usage is most notable versus left-handed hitters, cut in half to 15 percent, coupled with a doubling of his curveball usage to 26 percent. His affinity for hard stuff versus right-handed hitters has remained stable from last year, but this slider-to-curveball flip is also apparent.

The issue? Gray himself might have trouble confirming any of these specific usage alterations. An essential read to understand Gray’s uniqueness was written last year by the venerable Eno Sarris. It cited how unique Gray’s offerings were, highlighting the blur that exists when distinguishing between his curveball and slider. Comparing the visuals of Gray’s breaking pitches to a two-breaking ball arm like Corey Kluber, who has a slider with a more horizontal break to eliminate the majority of classification errors. Below is a quick gif of Gray’s slider and curveball to help visualize what I’m attempting to break down in words.

If we believe what Baseball Prospectus is classifying as Gray’s curveball and slider, we can see why this discrepancy occurs. The vertical break on Gray’s curveball is fantastic, sitting inside the 90th percentile of the league, a feat likely driven by the excellent spin rate earned year to year.

I imagine the philosophy behind Gray’s tinkering comes from the realization of how superb his curveball’s vertical break is and the want to emulate a plus characteristic of his curve by tinkering just enough horizontally to generate slider classification. This is supported by the vertical break on Gray’s “slider” sitting in the 98th percentile of the league for each of the last two years – to the naked eye, it’s easy to mistake it for a hard curveball.

This is part of the thrill with Sonny Gray: accepting his ability to render pitch recognition software periodically useless. But I also suspect his reliance on feel – not having a true distinction between pitches on occasion – creates stretches of struggle, like the rut we’re in right now.

So how does one remain optimistic in the face of poor results? This comes from one of the underlying results within Gray’s overall change: his curveball has been fantastic. Even with the classification errors we’ve already discussed, we can still parse out the effectiveness of this pitch with some reservation given his tendency to tinker.

Gray’s curveball location has been properly at the knees, the pitch’s whiff rate remains above league average, and the two-plane bend he generates is another plus aspect of his unique mix. The Yankees’ intentions of wanting to develop Gray towards more comfort with his breaking ball could have been to capitalize on this pitch’s effectiveness. Unfortunately, in a utopian world, everything else would have remained intact. Including the effectiveness of both his four-seamer and sinker, to his ability to manipulate his fastball grip and generate cut (which is the “cutter” that occurs when you see a fifth pitch disclosed on various outlets).

Rothschild & Co. shouldn’t alter their course six starts into the season, especially with his curveball this strong. Tinkering with Gray’s complementary components, maintaining a focus on this curveball is what I’d love to see the prolonged results of.

His curveball’s effectiveness to left-handed hitters should be enough to prolong success versus that handedness, but versus right-handed hitters, moving away from his slider has caused a key pitch from his 2017 repertoire to fade. This is where tinkering is needed most. Without the ability to regain bite on either his four-seamer or sinker, even if Gray aligns himself with the Yankees’ push for offspeed, nothing effective preempts his heavy dose of breaking balls.

Perhaps Gray’s tinkering has taken the “feel” away from his fastballs. Perhaps Gray needs to tinker more with his fastball, leaning on his cutting alteration more. Perhaps the answer is something previously undiscovered; something a “feel” pitcher needs time to adjust towards or away from.

Whether Gray figures this out, with enough time to make the general public walk back their criticism of a potentially necessary arm for October, remains to be seen. If the Yankees trade for another starter, as the New York Daily News, suggested back in January, grave concern for Gray as a starter might be unnecessary.

The future is bright, even with how cloudy it currently seems.

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