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The Sonny Gray trade still wasn’t a bad idea

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Despite the recent knock on his performance, the Bombers had few other, better options at the time.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

For all the things Yankees general manager Brian Cashman can take credit for—I mean, look at the roster of the 2013 Yankees and then take a look at them now!—there are always a few duds to speak on.

The interstitial years between 2013 and today hold a few examples, already, as far as pitchers go—Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda are prime examples. There were also years in his pre-analytics days that stand out, too—Esteban Loaiza, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, and Jeff Weaver. Talk to anyone on the street of New York, even today, and the word Pavano could be spit across a city block.

If go on those same streets and mutter the name of Sonny Gray, the vitriol is starting to climb to Pavano-esque levels:

It’s a fun fact because even despite the horrendous performance at home, there’s some good to be found. He has a 5.44 ERA (131 ERA-), but his FIP of 4.39 is only a 103 FIP-. DRA- might not agree as much, as his 111.6 means he’s only on pace for a 1.5 WARP.

I’m probably with DRA here. The walk rate is most concerning at 3.9 BB/9, and while his homer rate has stayed steady, his K-rate has declined. This has all also been in the midst of the Yankees pitch backwards approach that has seen his fastball go to a secondary pitch:

This off-speed-heavy diet has also forced the issue of a backup catcher, as the number of balls in the dirt was too much for Gary Sanchez to handle.

But we know the catcher isn’t doing it, and it very possibly just comes down to location. Last season, his fastball-primary repertoire had a simple formula of keeping the ball down:

Now, he has since changed his locus of pitch location entirely:

It’s a strange development that I’m not sure is so attributable to mechanics because his release point is consistent, but it must be about his change in repertoire which forces him to adjust location, as opposed to the simple “attack the lower third of the zone” mentality he had in 2017.

So it’s very possible that this is fixable, which leads me into my next point: the trade for Gray itself was no mistake.

Think about where the Yankees were as of last year. They “arrived” early with the chance of really making a push, and they needed a younger-ish, cost-controlled starter that could lead them to the postseason. And in 2017, at least, that’s what they got: Gray had an 84 ERA- down the stretch with the Bombers, and he had a couple of crucial starts in the postseason that helped lead them just a game shy of the World Series.

The flip side of it, as well, were the prospects that the Yankees forfeited in the deal.

  • Dustin Fowler has an 88 wRC+ in 43 games with the Athletics, and has been worth about a half-win in 2018.
  • Jorge Mateo is still a top-100 prospect, but has a .646 OPS in Triple-A.
  • James Kaprielian had Tommy John surgery in 2017 which was immediately followed by a shoulder problem. He has just resumed throwing this past month.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the five-year outlook for this crop is worth about... five wins on average? I’m spit-balling there, but if we assume Fowler is a fourth-outfielder type, Mateo is a low-batting average speedster, and Kaprielian is oft-injured, you don’t see many more wins being wrung out of that bunch.

Which ties into the original point: how can that be seen as a mistake, even today? Fowler was expendable with the Yankees outfield depth, and Kaprielian hasn’t been healthy. In the infield, Mateo is blocked by Gleyber Torres and Didi Gregorius.

The pitcher they needed has already provided them with something like a win and a half. If what I’ve said is any indication, it’s clear that this is not something mechanical and that his issues are fixable. As the Yankees look for one more arm as the trade deadline looms, they’re hoping he flips the switch soon.