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Sonny Gray’s escape from New York

Cincinnati adds another pitcher who, by ramping fastball usage back up, could see a return to form in 2019.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret Sonny Gray’s stint with the Yankees did not got as planned. While pitching well in the second half of 2017, the 2018 season was a disaster, especially when pitching at home. Cincinnati is hoping for a return to form for Gray in 2019, and it certainly isn’t out of the question.

Gray, you’ll recall, was traded to the Yankees in 2017 and made his debut for New York on August 3. He started 11 games for the Yankees that year, tossing 65 1/3 innings for a 3.72 ERA, 4.87 FIP and 4.45 xFIP. During that span, he gave up 11 home runs, 8 of which came at Yankee Stadium. We all know New York is a home run friendly park, so this is not exactly shocking news.

This trend continued in 2018, as Gray gave up 14 home runs in all, with 11 at Yankee Stadium in 59 1/3 innings (1.7 HR/9), while allowing just 3 on the road in 71 innings (0.38 HR/9). It’s obvious that pitching in New York did Gray no favors. That wasn’t the only change that likely played into his down year, though.

Looking at his four seam fastball usage, there was a decline in 2017 that became steeper through the 2018 season. This, again, is no surprise. A simple Google search will tell you the Yankees just haven’t thrown as many fastballs as the rest of the league since around 2012,. That gap has grown larger over the years, and in 2018, New York pitchers were at about a 40 percent fastball usage rate versus around 57 percent for the rest of baseball.

Gray’s fastball use first dipped in September 2017, remaining low through 2018, which is right in line with the Yankees’ team philosophy.

Gray’s 2017 four seam use
Gray’s four seam use from 2014-2018

As Gray’s fastball usage dropped, he used his curve ball more. A lot more. In the previous three years, Gray had an overall curve usage of roughly 15 percent—this jumped all the way to nearly 24 percent in 2018, which was by far the most he’d used the curve since 2014.

Sonny Gray pitch mix—2014-2018

Now, I’m not saying his curve is no good, but in comparison: Gray gave up more fly balls, less ground balls, and more line drives off the curve. Was the curve’s overuse hurting its value? Was the fastball’s under use hurting its value?

Something was certainly off, as batters were slugging his heater at a rate similar to his poor 2016 with Oakland. In 2016, though, Gray had two stints on the disabled list, limiting him to 117 innings pitched. So we can likely chalk up his struggles that year to physical ailments.

Batter ISO versus Gray’s four seam fastball—2014-2018

My contention is that if the Reds get Gray back to his normal fastball usage, he will get any mechanical kinks ironed out and return to better form by way of repetition and consistency. The Reds, by the way, had the fifth highest fastball usage in baseball last year.

If Gray gets back to his old pitch mix, there is no reason he can’t get back to a sub-four ERA. Even in a poor 2018, his xFIP was 4.10, which isn’t far off his career 3.71 mark. Gray also maintained a high ground ball percentage at 50 percent in 2018 (again, not far off his career mark of 53.3 percent).

I realize Cincinnati is an even more hitter-friendly park than Yankee Stadium, but keep in mind, Gray is moving out of the American League—meaning no heavy schedule versus the AL East and no more facing the designated hitter (well, minus interleague games, that is).

Those two changes, a reunion with his college pitching coach, and a jump of something like 10 percent in fastball usage, should see Gray leading the rotation of a retooled—and potentially exciting—Cincinnati team as they battle through a tough NL Central this summer.

Steamer projections have Gray at a 3.89 ERA for 2019—don’t be surprised if it’s more in line with his 3.66 career mark. At just 29 years of age, there’s a lot left in Gray’s arm, and the Reds will give him every chance to prove it—they’ve already signed him to a three-year extension.

Bob Ellis is a lifelong Royals fan. He has written in the past for Kings of Kauffman and Statliners. Follow him on Twitter @BobEllisKC