As we stand on the cusp of the 2015 season, a multitude of questions still remain all throughout Major League Baseball. A handful of them relate to the Oakland Athletics, who experienced a significant turnover in their lineup that now features five new starters, four of whom live across the infield and one (Billy Butler) that will take over as the primary designated hitter.
As currently constructed, this team could be anything from a contender for a division title to a complete unmitigated disaster in the American League West. Regardless of their ultimate fortunes, however, they'll be relying on newly crowned ace Sonny Gray, who inherits the role due to the respective departures of Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija over the course of the winter.
After flashing ace potential in a small sample size that included a terrific postseason appearance in 2013, Gray turned in his first full season at the big league level, to decent enough reviews. He struggled mightily in June, and scuffled again in August, but still turned in a solid campaign that featured a 3.08 ERA, a 3.46 FIP, and a 55.9% groundball rate. His strikeouts weren't quite as high as expected, at just 7.52 per nine, but he did a respectable job in limiting his walks, at a 3.04 BB/9 clip. His SIERA rating of 3.56 would have FanGraphs quantifying him as somewhere between "above average" and "great", as that figure ranked 29th in the league among starters.
Sonny Gray comes into 2015 as the ace of the staff. But is he an ace in the truest sense of the word? His former teammate, Jeff Samardzija, faced a similar question when he was with the Chicago Cubs last year, although for perhaps different reasons.
Gray isn't as visually devastating as fellow American League aces such as Felix Hernandez or Chris Sale, whom we'll use as statistical comps simply due to the fact that they represent a pair of pitchers that would easily be qualified as aces in the American League. Gray still utilizes what he has in order to be nearly as effective as the pair.
In order to be labeled an ace, one probably needs that one truly dominant pitch, which is where Gray's curve comes in. While he generated a higher percentage of swings-and-misses with his slider, he also threw the curveball over twice as much throughout the season.
Gray generated 15.27% whiffs with the curve. Hernandez (22.95%) and Sale (20.70%) went for quite a bit more with their respective out pitches (changeup for both). However, while he isn't going to make hitters look completely foolish at quite as high a frequency, batters still hit just .196 off the curve. King Felix was at .113 in 2014 with his change, while Sale came in at .206. So the ability to use that pitch to get hitters out is right in line with the game's best.
At the same time, the fact that his curve, or his fastball or sinker, isn't as overpowering leaves opposing hitters able to make more contact. He generates less swings on out of zone pitches (about five percent less) and boasts a higher contact rate (79.6%) than the likes of Hernandez or Sale. Simply put: Sonny Gray isn't a pitcher that will mow hitters down by way of punchout. Does that make him less of an ace? Perhaps, but we're not quite finished yet.
Gray's ability to mix his pitches (primarily the heavy utilization of the sinker and curve) leaves the opposition driving the ball into the ground. His 55.9% GB rate last year was the fourth best figure in the American League. With the defense behind him that the A's employ year in and year out, Gray can let his fielders do the work, as they routinely rank near the top of the league in their ability to defend. In doing so, he is setting himself up to be as effective as possible.
His ability to mix his pitches, and utilize the right pitch at the right moment, is what makes Sonny Gray a truly special talent. It's also important to note that he throws at an extremely consistent arm angle, which keeps hitters off balance. He's incredibly smart up on the bump, and what he throws in any given situation really helps to define him as such.
The following represents how Gray attacks hitters in particular situations:
He uses the fastball in order to get ahead of hitters, and when he's there, he goes after them with the curve. That primary combination takes place regardless of the handedness of the hitter. With lefties, he uses his fastball more than he does to righties, who he approaches with the sinker. The slider usage isn't particularly heavy, but tends to increase as a potential out pitch as the at-bat wears on and Gray gets ahead of hitters. This provides an excellent overview of his ability to mix things up in the right situations.
But in attempting to label Sonny Gray as an ace, how is the term officially defined? Is it based off that one dominant pitch? Fastball velocity? ERA? WAR? Gray seems to be standing on the precipice of any sort of criteria that would officially label him as such. He has that primary pitch to get hitters out, and a solid enough arsenal that allows him to mix effectively. He knows what to throw when. The intelligence is there, the repertoire is there.
A quick look at FanGraphs' list of pitching leaders indicates that, for all intents and purposes, Sonny Gray is a top 30 pitcher in baseball. If he can get to a point where he's striking out hitters with more regularity and forcing them to swing at pitches out of the zone at a higher clip than the one at which they currently are, then perhaps we talk about him as an "ace" up there with the league's best.
For now, the A's will likely settle for Sonny Gray as he is. He's a very, very good pitcher with upper tier stuff and the knowledge and ability to utilize that stuff to put himself in the best possible position to find success. Perhaps we could define him as "elite", but that's a label for another story. At this point, the ace label is not one that we can quite hit Sonny Gray with.
Heading into just his second full season, though, we could be having a completely different conversation by the time September or October roll around.
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.