What is wrong with Sonny Gray?

Coming into the 2018 season, Sonny Gray was considered by many a dark horse candidate for the 2018 American League Cy Young Award. His start to the year has been nothing short of disastrous, and certainly nowhere near Cy Young caliber.  Through four starts, Sonny Gray holds a 1-1 record, but an eye-popping 8.27 ERA and even more gruesome 2.082 WHIP.  Gray entered this season free of the injury woes that had plagued him in previous years and had his sights set on a career year. The results, however, have been anything but. 

Photo Credit: Andy Marlin/USA Today Sports

Said Yankee skipper Aaron Boone after Gray's latest disaster outing on Friday night against the Blue Jays, "I don’t think it’s anything physical. I don’t think it’s anything mechanical. I think he is not getting ahead as he normally would." Gray would take a no decision, but his line wasn't pretty: 3.1 IP, five hits, 5 runs (all earned), zero strikeouts and four walks. Most alarmingly, he recorded only two (!) swings-and-misses the entire night, throwing a total of 73 pitches. Katie Sharp posted some phenomenal (phenomenally concerning?) stats earlier today from Gray's Friday night outing. Below is the one that most stood out to me:
Credit: Katie Sharp, River Ave. Blues

Simply put, if Gray isn't getting ahead of batters, it usually spells trouble. This is something that needs to be watched as the season progresses.

Gray, who was on record saying he wanted to attack hitters and be more aggressive heading into his previous start against the Red Sox on April 12th, pulled a Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde as he nibbled on the corners all night long, lasting just three innings while getting blasted to the tune of seven hits, six earned runs and two walks while striking out three.  He also threw a whopping 68 pitches in his three plus innings of work. 

The biggest issue most Yankees fans have with Gray is that he has all the talent in the world to succeed. His curveball is as sharp as any pitcher on the Yankees and he has solid velocity, sitting in the mid-90s, but his inability to control his stuff, coupled with his aversion for throwing in the strike zone has paved the way to his awful start to the 2018 season. 

With each start, my patience with Gray grows thinner and thinner.  You look at his 2017 stats with the Yankees after the trade and they're not bad. His 4-7 record in eleven starts and decisions is a bit misleading when you note his steady 3.72 ERA, .222 BAA and 59 strikeouts in 65.1 innings.  However, the writing was on the wall in other areas. Gray notably struggled with command – issuing 27 walks in his 65.1 innings (3.7 BB/9) – as well as with the long ball – surrendering 11 home runs. 

Fast forward to this season, and the trend has continued. While Gray has limited the long balls (he's allowed just one in 16.1 innings), his walk rate has spiked even further. His 11 walks in 16.1 IP account for an eye-popping 6.1 BB/9 ratio, more than double his career average coming into the season of 2.9. His K/9 rate has increased just a tick (8.3 K/9 this season compared to 7.8 K/9 for his career), but that hasn't done anything to help him limit the damage. 

Simply put, Gray is throwing way too many pitches and not trusting his defense behind him.  Conversely, a guy like CC Sabathia has thrived on pitching to soft contact in his late career revitalization, no longer able to blow away hitters with a high-90s heater.  At this point in their careers, Gray has both better velocity and better raw stuff, but Sabathia has inarguably been the better pitcher. 

Gray has also struggled the most with Gary Sanchez behind the plate.  Gray's propensity for being wild paired with Sanchez's struggles blocking balls in the dirt certainly hasn't helped, but that alone shouldn't account for such a huge difference. Still, the stats don't line: 

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Sure, the sample size is small - two starts with each catcher is an insignificance sample size to draw conclusions, but still, the stats are hard to ignore.  Gray is walking more, striking out less, and allowing extra base hits at a far higher rate with Sanchez behind the plate compared to Romine.  Yes, Austin Romine has gotten himself off to a hot start, but I'm not sure making Romine Gray's personal catcher benefits the Yankees in the long run.  Romine will be hard-pressed to maintain his early production at the plate over the course of a full season. Still, if a few more starts go by and these results hold firm, Boone will have no choice but to make Romine the personal catcher of Sonny Gray.  Anything the Yankees would lose at the plate they would more than enough gain back in the form of a more effective starting pitcher that night. 

I'm not yet willing to concede that the Sonny Gray trade was a loss for the Yankees, especially considering the lack of production the Athletics have gotten from Jorge Mateo, James Kaprelian and Dustin Fowler, thus far.  However, if things don't change soon, the Yankees might have to reassess what exactly it is they have in Gray.  Do they have still a former top-three Cy Young caliber pitcher who has just hit a rough patch? If so, then the only solution is to let him work through it. However, if the answer is that they have a starter who is no longer capable of pitching at a high level, then tougher decisions need to be made. Notably, do the Yankees need to move Gray to the bullpen or just rid themselves of him altogether and find someone else to fill out the rotation? 

For now, I'm willing to give Gray a little more time, but the leash he is given should be short.  When he's on, he's capable of being a dominant starting pitcher who can completely baffle opposing hitters.  However, if the Gray we've seen so far in 2018 is the Gray we are going to continue to get as the season progresses, then the Yankees are in a world of hurt. Start with having Gray pitch exclusively to Romine and if things don’t get any better, then more difficult decisions will need to be made. For the sake of this team, let's hope Sonny can figure things out, and ideally much sooner than later. 

Article by: Andrew Natalizio 


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