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Sonny Gray: One of the Best Starting Pitchers in the League

Contrary to what the title may suggest, I’m not making the claim that Sonny Gray is “one of the best starting pitchers in the league.” Those were the words of Sonny Gray himself. 

“I’m one of the best starting pitchers in the league and I truly believe that. I think it’s that belief that will keep me moving forward and hopefully continue to have success from here on out.”

Now, you probably wouldn’t bat an eye if I told you Gray said this sometime in the past few weeks. Surprisingly, though, he uttered these words near the end of an underwhelming 2018 season with the Yankees. So underwhelming that the Yankees demoted him to the bullpen at the beginning of August. Maybe even more surprising is that he had the confidence to say this after his first game back in the starting rotation, which was a 5-1 victory against a struggling Baltimore Orioles team who finished the season with 47 wins. Not exactly a challenging win for Gray, or most pitchers for that matter. 

Sonny Gray finished his 2018 season with the Yankees with a 4.90 ERA and only 1.6 WAR. The Yankees traded him to the Reds just a few months later. The trade wasn’t necessarily a risk for the Reds based on who they gave up, but it was a risk based on Gray’s up and down career. While the Reds were certainly excited to have such a big name in their starting rotation again, the trade came with plenty of questions. Can Sonny Gray actually turn things around in a hitter-friendly home ballpark? Will a reunion with his college pitching coach make a difference in his performance? Can he replicate the success he experienced while pitching for the A’s?

As we begin the month of September, the answer to all of those questions seems to be “yes”. Gray was already having a solid rebound year before the All-Star break, but the second half of the season has been nothing short of incredible for Gray. In his 10 starts since the All-Star break, he has a 5-1 record, allowed only 11 ER, and improved his ERA from 3.59 to 2.80. Because of his second half performance, this will likely be Gray’s best season since 2015. 

In 2015, Gray ended the season with a 2.67 ERA, a .255 BABIP, a 3.45 FIP, and 3.9 WAR in 208 innings pitched. Similarly in 2019, Gray has a 2.80 ERA, a .260 BABIP, a 3.48 FIP, and 3.7 WAR in 151.1 innings pitched. 

The argument could be made that this is Sonny Gray’s best season when you dive deeper into the stats. Here are just a few noteworthy statistical differences between his current season with the Reds and his 2015 with the A’s:

  • Opponent Batting Average
    • 2019 – .198
    • 2015 – .216 
  • Strikeout Rate
    • 2019 – 28.3%
    • 2015 – 20.3%
  • LOB%
    • 2019 – 80.9%
    • 2015 – 76.8%

At the time, Sonny Gray claiming to be “one of the best starting pitchers in the league” sounded a bit overconfident, arrogant, and maybe even downright absurd. Now his claim simply looks like an unwavering belief in himself to improve, and the fact that he’s on the cusp of finishing one of the best seasons of his career is proof that his belief is paying off.  However, in order for Gray to take the next step in his development, he needs to finish the current season strong and follow up with another outstanding performance next year, which is something he has yet to do in his career.

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