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Sonny Gray: From good to great

Oakland A's pitcher Sonny Gray has had a good start to his career thus far. But what has he done so far this season that has made him great?

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[Editor's Note: This is Shawn's first article at Beyond the Box Score. Welcome him aboard!]

In case you haven’t been able to tell yet, Oakland A’s pitcher Sonny Gray is pretty good.

He’s so good that he once threw a perfect game in which he struck out every batter he faced—a la Steve Nebraska from ‘The Scout’! Ok, that isn’t true (yet), but let me tell you something that is:

Sonny Gray has been the best pitcher in Major League Baseball this season.

With a sterling 1.60 ERA, 2.56 FIP, and 3.23 xFIP in 95.2 innings, Gray has absolutely owned offenses in 2015. Not to mention that Gray has walked fewer batters and given up fewer home runs than at any point to date — he's tossing a career-low walk rate of six percent and a HR/FB rate of 4.8 percent.

Even more impressive is that he’s done it in the American League. And how much better has he been this year than last year?

Over 219 innings in 2014, Gray posted a respectable 3.1 fWAR. However, in almost 125 fewer innings this year, Gray owns a 2.8 fWAR. A clear sign that he has been almost as valuable thus far in 2015 as he was in his first full MLB season in 2014. So what has taken him to the next level?

For Gray, it all starts with his release point.

As we all know, one of the more important things pitchers can do is to repeat a release point on all of their pitches. If a pitcher were to showcase a noticeably different release point on a curveball than a fastball, a hitter might pick up on it and be able to identify what pitch is coming. Last season, according to Brooks Baseball, Gray had a wide area of release points on all of his pitches:

Gray 2014

This season, however, Gray has tightened up his release point:

Here’s how that looks for his four main pitches in chart form:

2014 Release Point
H-Release (ft.) V-Release (ft.)
Fourseam -0.98 5.72
Sinker -1.05 5.70
Slider -1.19 5.57
Curve -1.00 5.69

2015 Release Point
H-Release (ft.) V-Release (ft.)
Fourseam -0.85 5.86
Sinker -0.77 5.85
Slider -0.84 5.78
Curve -0.84 5.85

It’s absolutely ridiculous that Gray has managed to have almost the exact same release point on his four main pitches in 2015.

For as bad as it is to essentially tip your pitches by not repeating your release point, it’s even better if you can keep it similar. It’s tough for a hitter to tell what’s coming if a pitcher consistently repeats his motion, as well as his release point on all of his pitches, and that is where Gray has improved the most.

Gray—who primarily throws a fourseam fastball, sinker, slider and curveball—is being helped largely because this new repeated release point prevents hitters from picking up what pitch is being thrown. Gray has also seen an average velocity increase on all of his pitches, thus shortening the time for a hitter to try to figure out what is coming and react. This change in mechanics has helped the 25-year old as a whole, it’s really helped his breaking balls become even more effective.

Last year, opposing batters hit .175 against Gray's curveballs and .171 off his sliders.  On both pitches—opponents slugged below .250. Truly impressive numbers....but prepare to be amazed:

Thus far this season, Gray has been even better.

Check out how opponents have dealt with those same two pitches this season, again according to Brooks Baseball:

2015 Breaking Balls
Ks BA SLG BABIP
Slider 52 .107 .175 .184
Curve 8 .136 .136 .167

A .107 batting average against his slider? That would surely explain (and justify) the 10 percent jump in usage it had from 2014 to 2015. But what caused the sudden up-tick in usage and overall effectiveness? That answer lies in an increased movement of the pitch:

Slider Movement
H-Movement (in.) V-Movement (in.)
2014 2.67 2.83
2015 5.50 1.06

Here's the slider in 2014 (from Baseball Savant):

And 2015 (Also from Baseball Savant):

That added movement has translated into a pitch that absolutely befuddles anyone who dares challenge it, and it’s certainly not as if hitters are refusing to swing at it. At 64.59 percent, Gray’s slider owns the highest Swing percentage of any slider in baseball—but that doesn’t mean hitters actually make contact with it that much. When combining the Foul percentage and BIP percentage of Gray’s slider, you find that hitters only make contact with the pitch a whopping 36.18 percent of the time.

Combine that with Gray’s sky-high 43.98 whiff/swing percentage —which is currently good enough for the seventh highest such total in the Majors—on the aforementioned pitch, and you have little to do but come to the conclusion that it is one of the main reasons Gray has done so well this season.

Barring any way that Kansas City Royals fans can miraculously gain a way to vote in pitchers, Sonny Gray will be making his first appearance in the MLB All-Star game and there’s a more than serious case for him to get the start over Tampa Bay Rays ace Chris Archer.

To Oakland A’s fans, however, Gray represents something better than the All-Star game. Gray represents the future, a young bright spot for a sputtering A’s team in the basement of the American League West. That, after all, might be the best thing Sonny Gray has been able to do this season and should Gray keep improving, A's fans have a lot to look forward to in the near future.

. . .

Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a sophomore pitcher at Howard Payne University majoring in Business Management. He has the current misfortune of being Red Sox fan. If you would like to get a hold of him, please feel free to email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody.