The Athletics are perhaps the best team at taking underrated prospects and turning them into big time stars, even if only for a couple of years. Recent memory brings up Brandon Moss as one who had a nice peak followed by some ups and downs, Josh Donaldson’s transition into one of the game’s premier hitters, and of course the guy this article is about; Sonny Gray developed into a bright young star – even being named by David Ortiz as one of the five toughest pitchers he has faced!.
Gray stormed through the majors with a five pitch mix, a four seamer, sinker, curveball, slider and changeup. Despite not having elite velocity or strikeout stuff, he kept his ERA low by forcing weak contact and grounders, and not giving away too many free passes. And to his advantage, the Coliseum plays large to hitters, which has helped keep his homer rates low. While not entirely the makeup of a surefire ace, he has pitched just like one would expect from the role, finishing third in Cy Young voting in 2015.
But of course, 2016 has told a much different story. Gray has been dealing with an injury that has had him sidelined most of August, and leaves some wonder about to what extent it is the cause of his ineffectiveness this year. His ERA ballooned over three full runs to 5.74, and his ERA predictors give no help to calming concerns, placing him in the mid 4.00’s. His strikeout rate has fallen from 20.4% in 2014-15 to 18.1% this year, and the improvements he made on his walk rates last year have vanished. His once sparkly homer rate is now much tougher to stomach, as his HR/FB rate has jumped to 17.8%.
What we can see from looking deeper is that hitters are just making better contact, and doing so more often. He’s been able to keep his hard contact percentage in the mid 20’s his first three years, a good cut below the major league average of 31.5%. But this year he’s at 33.9%, helping explain the homers and the success hitters are having. What’s bizarre is that his pitch percentages have stayed basically the exact same. But even though his pitches are the same, the way they are appearing to the hitters is not. His vertical release point has dropped pretty significantly, down to about the lowest of his career:
Last year at his best, he was throwing the ball at a much higher release point – although his changeup does appear to be easier to pick up based off release point – more on this below. Getting lower has only led to stronger contact against across the board. Lowered release points are almost never good for pitchers. They often cause a decrease in velocity, can lead to injury (which we’ve already seen), and sometimes makes tipping pitches happen more frequently.
Gray’s fastball has gone from being 3.2 runs above average in 2015 to 3.1 runs below average in 2016, despite there being no change in horizontal or vertical movement and velocity staying almost the exact same (a small decrease of 0.2 MPH). When you have a pitch that’s being used at the same frequency, same situations and velocity, yet losing its effectiveness, it heavily hints at something not mechanical anymore. It’s likely Gray is tipping pitches, as his release point has varied enough to suggest this as a possibility. We can see his changeup is clearly below his other pitches, and hitters have been doing lots of damage off it this year.
Something else to look at is that even though his zone percentage is still about the same, Gray has been a little more predictable with where the ball is going. Look at his heatmaps:
It might be a little tough to see, but what’s happening is Gray is yanking more pitches down and away instead of a more even distribution, essentially his entire pitch distribution has migrated downwards, perhaps an effect of his lowered release point. Regardless, it’s making him more predictable inside the strike zone and is leaving him vulnerable to hitters sitting on pitches in certain areas, and he’s been paying a steep price for it.
What we’re looking at with Sonny Gray is not black and white, but there is enough noise here to gather some insight about him. He’s lowered his release point and locations, and with that he’s been injured more and lost effectiveness on pitches where he used to rely on. It’s tough to know exactly how easy a problem this is to fix, but often release points are something that can be worked on with good coaching.
As mentioned in the beginning, the Athletics are some of the best at developing talent, so Gray will be in the right situation to get himself back on track. Don’t be too eager next year to buy him at his previous years’ values because he still will need to show that he’s capable of coming back there, but look to pounce in a league where the majority of owners are buying too much into his abysmal 2016.
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