It sometimes feels as though Sonny Gray has been on the trading block since his call-up. Every year, the calendar turns to July, and the Oakland Athletics’ right-hander can be found in a plethora of trade deadline pieces from every baseball outlet under the sun, despite Gray being in just his fourth big league season.
Should this finally be the year that the A’s do decide to deal him, whatever contender he ends up with is going to be getting a front-end starter whose performance on the field is done an injustice by cursory statistics. The old fallbacks of wins, losses, and earned run average do a disservice to Gray, as does the common view of him being merely a fastball / curveball hurler.
As Eno Sarris illuminated in an excellent piece at Fangraphs, whatever team Gray is pitching for after July 31st will be getting one of the more varied, effective pitch arsenals in the game from a player who isn’t eligible for free agency until 2020.
One classifying system says he’s currently throwing more sliders than ever. One says he’s in a three-year high for curveballs. A third says he’s right about where he’s always been, but that his recent good stretch may have coincided with an increased use of his slider.
How the pitches are classified means nothing to Gray, of course, so long as they are effective in getting hitters out. “Whatever people call the pitch is what they are going to call it.”
After an ineffective, injury-plagued 2016 and after starting 2017 on the disabled list, Gray is using his confounding arsenal to return to the form we saw in 2013-15. Those who are not versed in advanced metrics point to his 3-4 record and 4.09 ERA as an indication that he’s not really an ace, but those folks are selling Gray short.
Should he be dealt to a contender, odds are he won’t have to be the No. 1 guy in the rotation, and that’s a scary proposition. Gray’s FIP of 3.48, ground ball rate of 55.9 percent, and strikeout rate of 22.9 percent suggest that he’s been a victim of the A’s being a pretty atrocious defensive team more than Gray being ineffective. FanGraphs ranks the club dead last in all of MLB in defensive runs above average, and Gray’s performance has suffered as a result.
Despite the lack of defensive support, he’s been getting better as the season has progressed, which is understandable considering he was shut down in spring training with a lat injury and spent the first month of the season on the DL. Here’s a look at opponents’ isolated power against Gray by month and pitch type.
After being knocked around a bit when he first came back to game action, Gray has settled in over the course of the past month to neutralize the damage done by opposition hitters. He is using his varied array of pitches to induce soft contact at a 16.3 percent rate, with an average exit velocity of just 85.9 mph. Batters are swinging at pitches outside the strike zone at a 31.4 percent clip and making contact just 74.2 percent of the time. .He’s mixing his various breaking balls between hard and slow in nearly equal proportion, and also varying his fastball usage between a two-seamer and a four-seamer to tremendous effect, though which one he utilizes is a question on a game-by-game basis.
“I will predominately pitch with my two-seam or I’ll predominantly pitch with my four-seam,” he told Sarris. “Flip a coin on the game.”
His four-seamer, which he can throw conventionally or “manipulate,” as he says, for more of a cutter effect, has been particularly tough on hitters. During June, opponents’ ISO against Gray’s four-seamer was a paltry .070:
The data, coupled with the fact that he isn’t eligible for free agency until 2020, should make Gray the single most coveted player on the block at this year’s trade deadline. The only potential red flag is his recent injury history, but that may in fact make a trade more likely, and sooner rather than later. As one executive told Mark Feisand of MLB.com, "If they get a deal they like for Sonny Gray, they'll lock it in early in July as opposed to taking a health risk on the guy.”
The club that gets the opportunity to put Gray in their rotation will be getting much more than just a jolt in the arm for this season’s pennant push, and that should have suitors once again flocking to Billy Beane in droves.
All data current through Sunday, July 1st.
Ben Martens is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @wbennomartens.