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Some advice for opposing hitters when facing Sonny Gray

Sonny Gray almost thew a no-hitter on Opening Day. How can opposing hitters prepare to attack him the rest of the season? Here is a plan that uses his pitch repertoire and count-based tendencies that might help.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

On Opening Day Oakland Athletics' starter Sonny Gray was almost unhittable. He took a no hitter into the 8th inning before succumbing to the talents of Ryan Rua who drove an 0-2 94mph fastball to right field for a single. Gray made a solid run at becoming just the second pitcher in history to throw an Opening Day no-hitter. The legendary Bob Feller is the only pitcher to have accomplished the arbitrary feat when he no-hit the White Sox in 1940. Nevertheless, Gray's performance of completing at least 8 innings and allowing only 1 hit or fewer on Opening Day put him in a group with only six other pitchers (since 1914). Clearly this accomplishment has many arbitrary cutoffs, but it is a fun tidbit worth noting. The group of pitchers to have achieved this mark is given in the table below (obtained using the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index):

Num Player Date Tm Opp IP H BB SO GSc
1 Lon Warneke Apr-17-1934 CHC CIN 9.0 1 2 13 96
2 Bob Feller Apr-16-1940 CLE CHW 9.0 0 5 8 90
3 Herb Pennock Apr-14-1915 PHA BOS 9.0 1 1 4 88
4 Bob Lemon Apr-14-1953 CLE CHW 9.0 1 4 3 84
5 Jesse Petty Apr-13-1926 BRO NYG 9.0 1 3 2 84
6 Pete Schneider Apr-16-1918 CIN PIT 9.0 1 5 3 83
7 Sonny Gray Apr-6-2015 OAK TEX 8.0 1 1 3 82

Check out those dates! Opening Days in mid-April! Also note that it has been 62 years since a pitcher did what Sonny Gray did on Monday night. And he looked good doing it; Gray's glorious decision to go with the short-pants and striped socks should be adopted by more players (attention Stirrups Now!). Regardless of uniform, by GameScore (GSc) Gray's was the weakest performance of the group, which is because he did not pitch the full 9 innings and only had 3 strikeouts. Regardless, he pitched really well and the Mariners (his next opponent) could probably use some advice on how to go about getting a hit off him. Mariners' hitters need to have a plan when they step into the batters box. Rangers' hitters may also want to think about this, as they are likely to see their in-division foe again later this season. As Beyond the Box Score alumnus Jeff Long has done for many other pitchers in his column at Baseball Prospectus, we can try to deduce a plan for attacking Sonny Gray by examining his repertoire and count-based tendencies.

I will use his 2014 season as my dataset to develop the plan. First, here is how his pitch usages changed over the course of the season:

As you can see, as the season progressed he traded his fourseam fastball for a sinker, his curveball for a slider, and threw his changeup more often. The exchanges (fourseam to sinker, curveball to slider) may have more to do with adjustments in pitch classification by the guys at Brooks Baseball, than with Gray changing his approach. Regardless, he has a solid mix of offerings, with a fastball, breaking ball and offspeed pitch, which will make it more difficult for hitters to pick up patterns. Making things more difficult is that his curveball, sinker, and slider all have positive pitch values, his fourseam is essentially neutral, and his changeup is only slightly below average.

Now we can examine how he uses this repertoire as the plate appearance progresses. I will note that because of the change in pitch type usage, from here on I will focus on Gray's tendencies as a function of pitch category (hard, breaking, offspeed), where the hard category includes his fourseam and sinker, the breaking category includes his curveball and slider, and the offspeed category is his changeup. However, I will also mention specific pitch types where relevant.

First Pitch

This is likely the case for many pitchers, but first pitch hitters should be looking for something hard. Gray throws his fourseam or sinker about 60% of the time to opponents regardless of handedness (59% to LHH, 62% to RHH). Making things difficult is that he has used the fourseam and sinker in roughly equal proportions. Regardless of batter handedness Gray primarily keeps the ball down and away from the hitter.

So the best advice on the first pitch of the plate appearance is to look for something hard that is down and away. Right-handed hitters can basically eliminate concern for the changeup, as Gray only throws it as a first pitch to righties 3% of the time. Lefties can still keep the changeup in mind, as he throws it 12% of the time, but it is still probably best to look for something hard. Right-handed hitters need to be more concerned with breaking stuff than lefties, as Gray throws his curve or slider to start a plate appearance 35% of the time to righties and 29% of the time to lefties.

Behind in the Count

Gray throws a first pitch strike 58% of the time, which is below league average, but also means that his first pitch is more likely to be a strike than a ball. So if the batter has taken the first pitch for a strike and gets behind in the count Gray can go to work. In such situations Gray tends to mix his pitches similarly to how he does on the first pitch of the plate appearance, albeit with an increase in breaking stuff to the point where he is throwing hard and breaking pitches in equal portions (~45%). He really does not throw his changeup very often. If you are going to see a Sonny Gray changeup you are most likely a left-handed hitter in an 0-1 count. Right-handed hitters need not worry much about the changeup, as Gray does not throws it more than 10% of the time to right handed hitters.

If Gray gets a batter to 0-2, it is time to look breaking ball, especially for right-handed hitters to whom he throws 70% of his 0-2 pitches as breaking balls. Lefties still need to be weary of the fourseam fastball, but the most likely pitch is a breaking ball. The area of the zone to focus on is the same for righties and lefties: down and away for right-handed hitters and down and in for left-handed hitters.

Those zone profiles are fairly distinct, although much more so for the right-handed batters. If they can lay off the pitch the will probably get themselves to 1-2. But Gray still throws hard stuff 30% of the time on 0-2 to righties, which makes it much more difficult than the zone plot makes it seem. If the hitter can get to 1-2 they are in a similar situation as 0-2 in terms of what to expect: breaking balls down and away for righties and down and in for lefties. Gray is really tough when ahead in the count and especially with two strikes when he can go to his devastating breaking stuff. On Monday night he threw first pitch strikes 63 percent of the time, was able to attack with his breaking stuff and often had batters making weak contact.

Ahead in the Count

The good news for hitters is that if they can get ahead in the count, Gray becomes much more predictable. In 1-0, 2-0, and 3-1 counts he throws his hard stuff 86 percent of the time. He will still try to keep the ball down and away from the hitter, but it is most likely a fourseam or sinking fastball, which makes the battle a little bit easier. This is the time to take some concerted hacks at his fastballs. If he gets a chance to get back in the count, his version of Uncle Charlie looms. For example, in a 2-1 count Gray has relied on his curveball much more than in the other hitter-favoured counts (~27% rather than ~8%). This is a situation hitters want to avoid.

This work presents an overview of a simplified plan for hitters when they are facing Sonny Gray. It is certainly not an easy task to step in against Mr. Gray, but having an idea of what is coming can help. However, knowing what is coming is one thing, reacting and driving the pitch is a whole other pickle.

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All statistics courtesy of Brooks Baseball, FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.

Chris Teeter is a featured writer and editor at Beyond the Box Score. He is also a contributor at BP Boston. You can follow him on Twitter at @c_mcgeets.