Towards the end of December, when the short-lived Corey Kluber and Noah Syndergaard talks to the Yankees died down and it seemed like there was not going to be another outside addition to the starting rotation, a strange thought came to my mind: “You know, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Yankees kept Sonny Gray.”
This sounds insane considering he had arguably the second-worst season of his major league career. As a starter in 2018, he pitched to a 5.26 ERA, 4.26 FIP and 1.50 WHIP (overall, he had a 4.90 ERA and 4.17 FIP, accumulating 1.4 fWAR) while putting up career-low numbers in walk percentage and line-drive percentage, as well as edging closer to his abysmal 4.32 SIERA in 2016 (4.28 in 2018). His abysmal 2018 included an entire day in the beginning of August, where he got battered by the worst team in baseball, lost his spot in the rotation, and had an out of context tweet resurface. The peripherals looked much better (4.10 xFIP, 4.28 SIERA, 4.20 pCRA), but they were still much worse than the numbers he put up in Oakland (sans 2016).
The most common scapegoat for his struggles in New York was that he did not have the mental makeup to handle the pressure of the “New York media”. Brian Cashman has used this as a reason for his struggles and impending trade early in the offseason. Even some of the most analytical of Yankee fans believe that the media pressure had something to do with it. Hell, even Sonny Gray himself used this as a reason why he struggled. All of this could be 100 percent true. If you strictly look at the numbers, Sonny Gray was a completely different pitcher on the road than at Yankee Stadium. But analyzing the effect of New York City and the brutal media is not only a topic for another article, but it is also unmeasurable.
In March, two months after getting traded to Cincinnati for Shed Long (who was immediately traded for Josh Stowers), he essentially blasted the Yankees in an interview with The Athletic’s Eno Sarris (NSFW warning):
If you take one quick look at both Fangraphs and Baseball Savant’s pitch tracking, this is not the entire truth. Yes, the Yankees had Gray use the breaking ball a lot more than he did in previous years. In fact, his fastball usage, which was always prone to get hit a lot (.424 and .411 wOBA off four-seam fastballs in 2018 and 2019, respectively), dropped by 20%. But in terms of his slider usage, Baseball Savant says that Gray used his slider slightly less in 2018, while Fangraphs said that he used it more in 2017 compared to 2016. And in any case, Gray’s slider only produced a .251 wOBA (.245 xwOBA) and .321 SLG (.302 xSLG). In fact, both websites have Sonny Gray throwing even more sliders than he did in 2018. So it is certainly not the slider that messed up Gray. But what if by “shitty slider”, Gray meant something closer to the slider? I’m talking about the cutter. And you only need to take one look at Fangraphs to see what happened:
What you see in that screenshot is not a typo. That is highlighting the use of his cutter in 2018, something that Gray had barely touched in any other season in the past. A pitched that he had used no more than 3.5% of the time (4.4% according to Baseball Savant) was suddenly being thrown 20.4% of the time. Now? In his resurgent 2019, the cutter has pretty much been non-existent, only using it 0.3% of the time. There is also a massive rise in curveball usage and a drop in changeup usage, but those numbers have stayed consistent from his 2018.
This is not the first time we have seen the Yankees completely change the arsenal of a pitcher. In fact, we saw it this year with James Paxton. Until his poor start in Boston, the Yankees were having him using his cutter more than his curveball, something he had not done since 2016. Since that start, he has gone back to using his curveball more, which has led to Paxton being one of the better starters in baseball again:
So if they were able to reverse their pitching philosophy for Paxton, why were the Yankees so keen on letting go of Gray? It is probably a severe case of hindsight warrior that I am doing here, but there is a chance that the Yankees would be in a much better position with their rotation this season holding on to Gray.
Think about it. If Sonny Gray had anything close to the current season he is having in Cincinnati, the Yankees starting rotation would have been set for the postseason. A rotation of Luis Severino, James Paxton, and a reinvented Sonny Gray, with Masahiro Tanaka behind them, would be a very good rotation. Additionally, they could have potentially extended him for less. Immediately after being traded to the Reds, Gray signed a three-year, $30.5 million extension, only $500,000 more than what Lance Lynn got this offseason from the Texas Rangers (also having a phenomenal season).
In other news, the Yankees could have had the frontline starter that they traded for in 2017 on their roster for the next few years and potentially keep him on the cheap side. Instead, the Reds got themselves another good starter to pair with Luis Castillo, while a $34+ million mistake in J.A. Happ might be starting postseason games for the Yankees (granted, that is more likely because of Domingo German’s legal trouble).
Again, I could just be using massive amounts of hindsight here. He very well could have been affected tremendously by the New York media pressure. There is probably some disagreements behind the scenes that the public does not know about. But based on what we know, the Yankees gave up on Gray way too quickly. It is very clear that, more than anything else, the conflict of the Yankees’ pitching philosophy was the reason why Gray struggled and did not work out with the Yankees. Forget the moves that Brian Cashman did not make during the offseason and before the trade deadline; if the Yankees miss out on a championship because of their rotation issues, we should be looking back on the hast decision to “relocate” a top-tier starter to Cincinnati.
For more on what has lead to Sonny Gray’s rejuvenation, read this article from fellow Diamond Digest writer Tim Shope.
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14).