Sonnier Horizons: Gray and Yanks Just Weren’t Meant to Be

When I first took up sports writing, I told myself that I would never, ever (ever!) mention politics in any of my articles.

In this case, however, I’m going make an exception, because I think what I’m about to mention is something we can all agree upon: in today’s political landscape, all over the world, we are swarmed by lies and misinformation. Whole campaigns are centered around false promises and unrealistic goals, and this is true in every political party and in virtually every country on the globe.

Many politicians aren’t completely corrupt, yes, but how are we to tell the good from the bad when ‘in the moment’ and without a long track record to review? This is a dilemma that humans have been attempting to solve for centuries, and unfortunately, our best option has been simply tuning out words and waiting for real action to be taken.

This is why, to me, baseball is so refreshing. Yes, false information is sometimes sprinkled into the news cycle, and no, team officials aren’t always ‘Honest Abe,’ but all in all, the baseball news cycle contains more honest information than almost any other enterprise’s. This isn’t just an ‘all-sports thing’ either. Want proof? Just think of how many times you’ve lost a fantasy football matchup because you started a player that the head coach said was going to have a “big role” and ended up touching the ball three times all day?

Baseball General Managers aren’t perfect, but their comments as they relate to their squad are almost always at least somewhat useful–something especially true in the offseason. On October 12, 2018, Yankees GM Brian Cashman, as a matter of fact, appeared to attempt to channel his inner Honest Abe when pressed on Sonny Gray. Without further ado, here is quite possibly the most candid GM comment of last decade (courtesy of the NY Post):

“‘It hasn’t worked out thus far,’’ Cashman said at a press conference at Yankee Stadium. ‘I think he’s extremely talented. We’ll enter the winter, unfortunately, open-minded to a relocation. To maximize his abilities, it would be more likely best [for him to be] somewhere else.’”

Wow. One of the first rules taught in the GM School of Trading is to never tip one’s hand. None of us have to remind Cashman this, however–he’s the professor that writes the curriculum. Cashman, currently the highest-paid and longest-tenured GM in baseball, only seems to get better with age. The 51-year-old New Yorker has transformed a team previously notorious for its exorbitant spending and post-prime players into a squad popular solely because of its young core and deep farm system (the spending, however, might be back very, very soon).

The sports world is famous for its lack of ‘sure things,’ but here Cashman throws us a bone. The quote, for its part, makes it a virtual lock that Gray will never don the pinstripes ever again.

Now that this is a foregone conclusion, let’s take a look into how we’ve gotten here and whether teams should be interested, shall we?

Still the Same Player?

Before starting this project, I assumed that there would be one or two ‘smoking guns’ most responsible for Gray’s degradation. To my surprise, however, there weren’t any, and that’s mostly because Gray has barely declined. No, Gray hasn’t been at his best, but there definitely wasn’t as big of a decline as the media has made it appear.

Gray, at his peak, had one really good season, which resulted in something between 4 and 5 WAR, depending on which statistics you use. Aside from that outstanding 2015 season, Gray has mostly fluctuated between being an average (2 WAR) to an above-average player (3 WAR). This past season, he was worth about 1-2 WAR in just 130 innings–not too far off his career’s path. Looking into his peripherals yielded a similar conclusion, as Gray’s 2017 BB/K ratio,  home run rate, hard-hit, and GB/FB rates were all also comparable to his career rates.

As I have gone further and further into this dilemma, I am less and less skeptical that Brian Cashman actually expected an ace out of Gray, and the package he parted with–Dustin Fowler, Jorge Mateo, and James Kaprielian–reflects this. Fowler looks like a bench outfielder, Mateo is more tools than skill, and Kaprielian has pitched 29 total innings since being drafted in 2015 (and 0 with Oakland).

So yes, Sonny Gray is a talented pitcher with some possible untapped potential, but I just wanted it to be clear that a) Gray isn’t some broken former superstar who is extremely underperforming and b) Gray is still very close to the player he used to be.  

Just Not Meant to Be

Despite his many talents, however, it is clear that Gray doesn’t belong in pinstripes. This isn’t about being a fit for the New York market (although smiling at the crowd after being shelled and subsequently booed isn’t a good look), rather Gray simply does not appear comfortable with the short porch on East 161st Street or with the bloodthirsty AL East as a whole.

The Yankees, for their part, did their best to put Gray in a position to succeed. Aware of the discrepancy between his nasty curve (35% K, 7% BB) and shoddy fastball (16% K, 11% BB), the coaching staff called for more breaking balls than ever asked of Gray. All in all, only 35% of the 29-year-old’s offerings were of the fastball variety, and this comes after a previous career mark never below 55%. This made sense, as the great difference in career wRC+ allowed by the two respective pitches (133 wRC+ off the fastball vs 47 wRC+ with the curve) represented an obvious area for optimization.

After the philosophy change, both pitches still did what they were expected to, with the fastball still being atrocious (171 wRC+ allowed) and the curve still being effective (72 wRC+ allowed), but surprisingly, the pitch mix change did little to help. In fact, it can be argued that it hurt Gray, somehow. Puzzling.

Screwy Splits

At this point, we’re running out of possible explanations, and that has brought us to a   street I don’t usually go down: Splits Avenue. At this point in our evaluation of Gray, we have no choice but to revert to a split of about 200 innings of data from August 2017 to September 2018. Splits from little over a calendar year don’t often reveal much about a player, but in Gray’s case, the difference is pretty stark:

Home, since trade: 88 IP, 21.3% HR/FB, 18% K, 12% BB, 6.06 FIP, 1.5 GB/FB

Away, since trade: 108 IP, 7% HR/FB, 24% K, 8% BB, 3.05 FIP, 1.9 GB/FB

Wearing his road grays, Sonny pitched like an All-Star and possible CY Young contender. He generated ground balls, avoided the long ball, and controlled the strike zone quite well. Based on his work in the Bronx, however, Gray looked like he didn’t belong in the league, with terrible strike zone control and homers galore.

No, it’s not a huge sample, but 200 innings isn’t nothing, especially when the underlying metrics are so extreme. It’s clear that, for whatever reason, Sonny Gray does not heart NY. Can the Yankees tolerate any more egregious innings in hope of a turnaround?

Out of Patience, Out of Time

In a word: no. In fact, the trade for Gray was the singular event that signaled that the Yankees were shifting from the surprise ‘Little Engine That Could’ squad back into the Evil Empire. At this point, literally every single game counts because each could be the difference between a 28th World Championship and another winter of regret.

After an unspectacular 36 starts and 43 total appearances, the Yankees have been more than patient with Gray’s acclimation to the Big Apple, and it simply hasn’t worked out. With only a year of his cheap arbitration contract remaining, the club would be best suited moving on while 1) he’s still under their control, and 2) while he’s still healthy and interesting. The coaching staff applied their best strategies and tactics and played to Gray’s strengths, but in the end, some things just don’t work out for whatever reason–something that is true both in baseball and in life.

What’s Going to Happen

Despite Gray’s struggles, I highly doubt that Brian Cashman will struggle to find a worthwhile trade partner. After all, who wouldn’t want to try to “fix” an arm that produced a curveball with the 4th-highest spin rate (behind only Snapdragon mavens Seth Lugo, Charlie Morton, and Rich Hil, among starters) in baseball?

One team that immediately jumps out is the Houston Astros, known for their work with pitchers with high spin–including Morton, Gerrit Cole (5th on the list), Lance McCullers (7th), and Collin McHugh?

Another potential fit would ironically be the Oakland Athletics, who are out of their rebuild phase and stocked with an elite infield defense that would be a perfect fit for Gray’s ground-ball-generating talents.

Gray could also be a part of a larger deal which eventually brings Corey Kluber or Carlos Carrasco to the Bronx, as Gray would at the very least provide a usable arm to fill the spot being vacated by the outgoing pitcher (at best, however, he would be the 3rd or 4th most valuable piece in the potential deal).

In totality, the possibilities are endless. A player of Gray’s caliber isn’t usually on the market, so when he is, the vast majority of teams are obliged to be interested. No matter the name or destination of the suitor, however, this development is likely to result in what I call a win-win-win trade: the Yankees recoup some value for a player who can’t pitch in their home ballpark, some team gets a chance to acquire an All-Star-caliber pitcher on the cheap, and Sonny Gray gets a clean slate in his final year before hitting free agency for the first time. After all, this may be his last shot to sign a 3-4 year deal.

For all of our sakes, though, let’s hope that honesty does win out here and that Brian Cashman does his best to put Sonny Gray in a position to succeed. It would be good for baseball–obviously–but even more significantly, this honesty would be tangible proof that the human species hasn’t been corrupted thus far.

That’s deep stance for a baseball article in November, I know, but here’s to celebrating the little things in life, like a random offseason comment made by a wisened and skillful General Manager who isn’t paid to tell the truth.

Featured Photo: The Crawfish Boxes

Jordan Lazowski

2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame and current Editor-in-Chief. Born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and I haven't left since. Lifelong White Sox fan, self-proclaimed nerd, and Lucas Giolito's biggest supporter. Feel free to reach out and talk baseball! Twitter: @jlazowski14

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