The Reds just acquired a pitcher with elite raw stuff and a proven track record of success, albeit coming off recent struggles. In a prototypical buy low move, the Reds traded Shed Long and a draft pick for Sonny Gray. Gray has always had a plus curveball and was lauded for the pitch throughout the draft process and his minor league career. However, after a serious injury, Gray turned down his curveball usage in favor of fastballs, sinkers, and sliders. Gray claimed that it was not because of the injury, however, that he diminished his curveball usage, but instead said he just had a better feel for his slider after coming back. This brings up one of the more intriguing things about Gray that makes him unique compared to most pitchers; Gray does not use specific pitch grips. He switches up his grips, finger pressure and release based on feel from pitch to pitch. It is difficult to say this is wrong considering the overall successful career that Gray has seen in his time in the majors. However, perhaps this is what has been causing his struggles in 2018.
It is easy to look at the surface and say the issues Gray experienced with the Yankees stemmed from over usage of his breaking pitches. Looking more closely however, Sonny Gray’s curveball has more movement than ever before and the results are still positive with the pitch. Opponents have a 72 wRC+ on the pitch. This is the most overall effective the pitch has been since his very strong 2015 campaign. His slider has moved significantly more this season as well with both the highest horizontal and vertical break he’s ever seen on the pitch. However, with this added movement he’s getting well below average results, as the wRC+ on his slider increased from 8 in 2017 to 76 in 2018. His zone% is just 2% under his career average so his command is not terrible, especially considering a huge increase in movement you would expect a little trouble with command. The O-swing% is under 40% for the first time since 2014, which means hitters are not chasing the pitch despite its increased movement.
There does not seem to be anything wrong with the pitches themselves, in fact they look stronger than ever. The issue must lie in how they are being utilized. Though at face value it seems as though Gray is throwing too many breaking balls, his fastball has been his biggest issue this year. This past season, the pitch was less effective than ever before in his career, and it is not particularly close with a 171 wRC+ against. His velocity was just the same as it has always been, so an injury is not the issue. The movement on the pitch, however, is significantly diminished compared to years past with very little horizontal movement and his four seam having more vertical drop than previous seasons. Vertical movement is an effect of lower spin rate but as we see with Gray his spin rate in 2018 averages 2448 whereas 2017 averaged 2483 and 2016 averaged 2420. This negligible difference is more than likely random variation more than pointing to any conclusions. This is a useful spin issue for Sonny Gray. While his spin rate has remained stable, the spin axis on his four seam has dropped from 194 degree to 186 degrees. This makes his fastball spin more like a cutter and explain the decreased movement on the pitch this season. Here is the practical use of this information using Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Savant pitch charting.
The slider is not getting nearly as many strikes on the outside part of the plate and just off the plate from 2017 (left) to 2018 (right). This is from the pitcher’s perspective.
The reason behind this may be because Righty Hitters are able to lay off of a slider away because they are not worried about the fastball breaking back towards the plate for a called strike. Now, if a fastball and slider both start off the plate, it is easier to know they will both be ball so hitters are able to recognize the low and away slider. Righties crushed Gray in 2018 for a .349 wOBA and his strikeout minus walk rate decreased by 4%.
Now let’s take a look at the specifics of his fastball and slider pairing using Baseball Prospectus’ PreMax Value and PlatePre Ratio. PreMax value essentially measures the distance between pitches at the moment a batter makes the decision to swing or not and the PlatePre Ratio measures how much a pitch moves after that decision point. In 2017 facing righties throwing a fastball followed by a slider, Gray had a 1.41 PreMax Value and a 15.6 PlatePre Ratio. When leading that same tunnel with a slider first, the PreMax Value increases to 1.72 and his PlatePre Ratio declines to 14.8. The same trend continued into 2018 where Gray executed much more often when leading the tunnel with the fastball. This further points towards an increased usage of breaking pitches in all counts affecting Gray’s ability to execute his fastball.
The important part of this research is figuring out how practical this is in fixing Sonny Gray understand how he can return to his prior pitching leave. My first thought is to evaluate the physical aspects of throwing more and more breaking pitches. For both his slider and his curveball, the pressure is on his middle finger. Further, with the added movement, Gray’s feel for the pitches may be greater than usual and the pressure on his middle finger is increasingly strong. This also makes sense when considering Gray’s fastball has a cutter like spin axis as the pitch grip for a cutter is often just a four seam grip with added middle finger pressure. So with the increase in breaking balls, Gray is becoming more comfortable with added pressure on his middle finger when he pitches. As a pitcher who does not have set pitch grips, but instead pitches by feel, it makes sense that he would have trouble throwing a fastball, because the release is so similar to a slider, just with different finger pressure.
This is a situation where we see a pitcher who is not breaking down, but simply needs to retool his fastball in order to enhance the effectiveness of all of his pitches. What makes this likely is that we have seen Gray with this effective fastball in the past. This is not a case of a young pitcher without a track record of success. Neither the pitcher nor the team were ‘wrong’ in this situation, but discovering the problem and developing a solution is what the Reds need to do in a situation where a player is underperforming to his expected level. It will be up to new pitching coach Derek Johnson to unlock Gray’s potential in the Reds’ rotation. Just as Johnson has worked with retooled starters Jimmy Nelson, Wade Miley and Jhoulys Chacin among others, he will have plenty of work with the talented but under performing Sonny Gray in Cincinnati.
All Data Courtesy of Baseball Savant, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus
Feature Image Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons