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Sonny Gray is the best (trade chip) he’s ever been

The Reds’ righthander has Sonny skies ahead. Take that, Jay Jaffe!

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The story of erstwhile Oakland-cum-Cincinnati ace Sonny Gray is by now well-known to pretty much everyone who follows baseball, courtesy of a brief but by no means pleasant stop in Yankees pinstripes. Gray spent his first three seasons in Oakland, emerging as one of the best young starters in the American League. Despite a limited ability to miss bats, Gray rode a wide repertoire, elite ground ball rates, and excellent pitch movement to a 2.88 ERA (133 ERA+) and 3.36 FIP across 74 starts and 491 innings between 2013 and 2015.

Injuries derailed his 2016, and he slumped to a homer-plagued 5.69 ERA (139 ERA-), essentially being as bad in 2016 as he had been good the previous three seasons. But despite concerns that Gray was just a redux of Matt Cain, another FIP-beating right-hander who outperformed his peripherals until he didn't, Sonny rebounded in the first half of 2017.

With a 3.59 FIP (75 FIP-) and 3.42 xFIP (75 xFIP-) across 78.2 innings. Gray was back to his ground-ball generating, dinger-suppressing ways, and the Yankees surrendered three young prospects to get him at the 2017 trade deadline.

But as we all know by now, Sonny’s skies turned grayer in New York. Gray’s 2016 home run problems returned with a vengeance, as he surrendered 25 home runs in just 195.2 innings across a year and a half in the Bronx. Worse, Gray suddenly began to lose command of the strike zone, with his walk rate ballooning to 9.8% (3.9 BB/9) in 2018. Gray tossed just 130 innings in 2018 as all the walks drove up his pitch count, and the team threw up its hands in the offseason and shipped Gray off to Cincinnati, who promptly handed the righty a three-year extension that now looks like the coup of the offseason.

What did the Reds see that the Yankees didn’t? The “can’t handle New York” refrain gets tossed around a lot, and Gray was no exception. Yet unlike, say, Javier Vazquez, another talented and enigmatic right-hander who struggled in the Bronx despite success elsewhere, there’s tangible evidence that the Yankees broke Gray rather than the other way around. As I wrote last year, the Yankees’ famed pitching-backwards approach—ditching fastballs in favor of breaking balls and off-speed pitches—was most likely what hurt Gray.

“The missing swings are concentrated both at the top of the zone and inside to left-handers — where his fastball and two-seamer, respectively, tend to be most effective. Without the fastball to tempt swings in those difficult regions, Gray has fallen behind as a result — and that creates two problems. One, it leads to walks. Two, it puts hitters in advantageous counts.”

Gray, for his part, seemed to agree with my conclusion. And our very own Kenny Kelly wrote earlier this year that the Reds took a very different approach to the righty’s fastball:

“In the same interview with Eno Sarris, Gray talked about how the Reds introduced him to spin efficiency. Gray has one of the best fastball spin rates in baseball, but because of his arm slot, his spin efficiency is lower. High spin fastballs resist gravity better than low spin heaters, but only if thrown just so. Gray’s fastball is thrown in a way that’s more conducive to cutting action. Rather than changing his arm slot, Gray has embraced this.”

Looking at the Statcast data, the Reds have completely revamped Gray’s repertoire, returning him to a pitch mix very similar to what Gray used in his Oakland salad days. Gray’s four-seam fastball, tossed just 26% of the time in 2018 with New York, is now his most common offering, being used nearly a third of the time. His sinker is now a distant third in his pitch mix after being used over 30% of the time in New York, and Gray has replaced those sinkers with hard sliders and changeups, two pitches that the Yankees had shelved almost entirely.

Sonny Gray’s repertoire has changed a great deal from 2018 to 2019.

This change—reverting to his Oakland roots—has led Gray to perhaps his finest season. Through 97.1 innings this season, Gray has the highest strikeout rate of his career (10.36 K/9, 28.1% K%), the second-best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career (3.11 K/BB; 19.0% K%-BB%), and the second-best ground ball rate of his career (55.1%). As a result, Gray has a 3.42 ERA (76 ERA-), 3.24 FIP (72 FIP-), and 3.44 xFIP (78 xFIP-), all the second-best marks of his career.

Pitching half his starts in the launching pad that is Great American Ball Park, Gray is twentieth among all qualified MLB starting pitchers in ERA (ahead of Stephen Strasburg, Aaron Nola, Walker Buehler, and Trevor Bauer), twelfth in FIP (ahead of Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Matthew Boyd, and Kyle Hendricks), and thirteenth in xFIP (ahead of Patrick Corbin, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. Overall, Gray is 20th among MLB starting pitchers in fWAR (+2.5, ahead of Verlander and Noah Syndergaard).

To show just how good Gray has been, here’s another chart:

This is a chart I love because it’s pretty wild. All three pitchers here are about even in terms of run prevention and missing bats. Gray is the best at inducing grounders, by not a small margin. So who are the other two pitchers? Mystery ace is Jacob deGrom, and yes, Gray has been as good as deGrom at preventing runs this year, and FIP and xFIP suggests that’s real. Sonny Gray has been deGrom with a few more walks and a lot more grounders. The Mystery Millionaire is Nationals southpaw Patrick Corbin, who has pitched well in the first year of a six year, $140 million megadeal. Gray has pitched just as well as Corbin, if not better - and he’s on a three-year, $30 million deal that now looks incredibly team-friendly.

If you’re the Reds, the question is what to do with Gray—but not in the way the Yankees had in mind. The Reds evidently fancy themselves a contender, and the impulse to buy is logical given the team’s deals for Yasiel Puig and Tanner Roark in the offseason, among others. At the same time, Cincinnati has faced injuries (Scooter Gennett) and under-performance (Joey Votto) from key members of the offense, resulting in a mediocre offensive showing; with an 85 wRC+, the Reds are 26th in MLB in offense despite playing in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in the league.

How bad is it? The Reds’ offense is just one point ahead of the Baltimore Orioles in wRC+. The Reds have scored just 387 runs this year, fewer than the Indians and Royals, and only two more than the Orioles. With an offense that bad, the pitching, whilst excellent, hasn’t been enough to keep them in the thick of the race. The Reds entered play Monday in last place, 6.5 games out of first in the loaded NL Central, where three teams are all above .500. The Wild Card isn’t that much more promising; though the team is just 4.5 games out of the second spot, they’re behind eight other teams, including the San Francisco Giants. In other words, the Reds are closer to the Mets in the standings than they are to a playoff berth.

So, should the Reds sell? A legitimate top-20 starting pitcher with multiple years of team control remaining on a reasonable contract doesn’t come along very often, and that means that it has to be tempting to Cincinnati to cash in Gray for a king’s ransom. Last year, the Pirates acquired Chris Archer, an inferior pitcher to Gray with similar team control on a similar contract, for Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow. Justin Verlander, who at 34 was five years older than Gray is now, fetched three of the Astros’ top 11 prospects (Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, Jake Rogers) in a loaded system.

If the Reds decided to make Gray available, history suggests he’d bring a potentially organization-altering return. The Astros, for example, have both history getting the best out of fastball-heavy pitchers like Gray (see: Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton) and have a long-term need in their rotation. If they offered Kyle Tucker and Forrest Whitley or Josh James, a package analogous to what the Pirates gave up for Archer, could the Reds really say no?

The Reds have an opportunity here to add top-end talent to a future which already features future superstar Nick Senzel and top-tier starter Luis Castillo. As tempting as it might be to try and shove open a window for Joey Votto, the first baseman’s decline has continued unabated this season and the team’s offense without him just isn’t good enough for the team to make a run.

Granted, the team may well decide to reload the offense in the offseason and try again; after all, Gray is just 29, and forms a potent one-two punch at the top of the rotation with Castillo. At the same time, the Mets have shown that building a team around a super-rotation can be risky business. If a contender comes calling, the Reds may well be right to listen.