How special is Sonny Gray?

What I would give to be Jaso... - Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Is Gray on his way to being the A's first true ace since that early-2000's trio of Cy Young contenders?

On Monday in my game recap, I went a little gushing on my praise of Sonny Gray. Like beyond just man crush. Coming off a 3-hit complete game shutout in Arlington (really, it should have been two hits, but the Rangers official scorer decided to spare Jed Lowrie an error) I was pumped. To continue the epidemic of quoting oneself on AN (I'm looking at you, Jeremy Koo and Alex Hall), I said that not since the "Big 3" have A's fans had the opportunity to watch a true ace take the mound every five days.

We can debate what an ace is, but I think most of us can agree on a few basic qualities: Healthy, goes deep into games, dependable, dominant, known for rising to the occasion, and has something of a confidence and intimidation factor. When an ace is at their best, they are going 8 or 9 innings, dominating, and the opposition looks weak and helpless, and it almost doesn't matter at all who the opposing hitters are. Fans turn out in droves to watch them start. Opposing fans want to see them pitch just for the beauty of it. To me, an ace isn't just the best pitcher on the team, it's a guy who is in competition for best pitcher on any team for multiple seasons. Granted, pitchers have good years and bad years and even true aces don't always pitch at that level year after year, but the real aces have a sustained stretch of dominance and are either in the Hall of Fame or pretty damn close.

Some of our esteemed commenters called me out on my over-the-top praise. I did lay it on thick. However, while maybe the language I used was a little extreme, I do stand by that statement. It's obviously early in Gray's career, so he can't wear that title just yet, but I really don't remember a better pitcher between the Big 3 and Mr. Gray. However memories are hazy.  Let's look at numbers. Sexy, sexy numbers.

Gray has had a remarkable start to his MLB career. These are his numbers, including the postseason:

20 games, 18 starts, 118 innings pitched, 6⅓ innings per start, ERA of 2.29, ERA+ of 164 (ERA+ does not include postseason).  The guy has 40 walks and 116 strikeouts. In his first 20 games. Did it suddenly get hot in here or is it just me?

There were a few names that popped up as potentially "ace-like" pitchers in between Zito (last of the big 3) and Gray. Namely Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, Brett Anderson, Dan Haren and Gio Gonzalez.  I'm comparing how they came into the league, the dominance they showed at the outset. Three of those guys are injury-riddled messes and clearly not aces but I want to look at whether they even looked like aces at first.

Rich Harden

Harden's 2003: 17 games, 13 starts, 76 innings pitched, 6 innings per start, ERA of 4.62, ERA+ of 100, 42 walks, and 68 strikeouts.

Even giving him his first couple of seasons and hitting 2005 (maybe his best year statistically), the guy only pitched 128 innings. He had a great year (2.45 ERA). His next year that approached that was 2008 (maybe better than 2005) but he was traded that year, so I can't really count it as an ace for Oakland.  In between he had some decent seasons and missed a lot of games and wasn't really all that great after 2008.

Justin Duchscherer

I'm not counting him. He was a reliever for years, and then a junkballing (but awesome) starter. Not the same. As a Gray fanboy I'm insulted that he is even mentioned in this article.

Dan Haren

I did not originally include Dan Haren in this article because he didn't debut with the A's. It's worth looking at though (thanks to LaFountain). Haren was a good pitcher, for sure. However by the time he got here he already had parts of two seasons with the Cardinals, and it took him two more years to go from "above average" to "potential ace." 2007 was a great year, he made the All-Star game, and then we traded him. Still, it was 138 ERA+ territory, which is ace-like status. If we had kept him, maybe we'd have an argument, but one amazing season does not make an ace. The point is, we may be in for multiple seasons like Haren's 2007. No pressure or anything.

Brett Anderson

Brett Anderson's rookie season (2009) showed some promise, of course. Especially that beastly complete game shutout in Fenway.  However, he really wasn't ace-like that year. More strikeouts than Gray, but he was much more raw, still harnessing his arsenal en route to a 4.06 ERA and a solid 108 ERA+.

In 2010 Anderson really started to put it together, but he had a stretch of 3 months (May, June, and July) in which he only started 3 games. Yes he showed ace-like qualities, but his durability was being questioned in just his second season. Gray is already better.

Gio Gonzalez

Gio Gonzalez was never an ace, at least not with the A's. His first two seasons saw an ERA above 7 and 5, respectively. He was never in the Gray stratosphere as a young hurler.

The best of the post-big 3 pitchers didn't really get close to ace-hood (or Ace Hood, I guess). They didn't approach Gray's numbers at the start. Not even close.

Big 3

Let's look at the Big 3's rookie seasons. All stats include postseason except ERA+:

Starts IP IP/Start ERA ERA+ K/9 BB/9 W-L
Hudson (1999) 21 136⅓ 6⅔ 3.23 142 8.7 4.0 11-2
Mulder (2000) 27 154 5⅔ 5.44 86 5.1 4.0 9-10
Zito (2001) 15 98⅓ 6⅔ 2.65 173 7.6 4.3 8-4
Gray (career) 18 118 6⅓ 2.29 164 8.8 3.0 9-5

These guys were good. Mulder had an Anderson-like start to his career, but morphed into the sometimes all-star always innings-eating starter that he was projected to be, at least for his first six seasons.  He didn't quite hit and sustain the peak levels of Hudson and Zito though.

Hudson and Zito both started off brilliantly, and continued that way for a while.  At this point Hudson is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate. Zito isn't, but he had some amazing years and is the only one to bring home the Cy Young Award.

Gray is right there with them. He's throwing almost as many innings each start.  His ERA is lower than any of the others, and even with ERA+ correcting for the run environments, he is well above Hudson's rookie season and right behind Zito. His K and BB ratio is better than all of them.  And neither Hudson or Zito had the velocity of Sonny Gray. Gray's curve is every bit the weapon Zito's was, and he throws a much faster fastball.

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No comparison, really.

Statistically, Gray's start is better than any of the significant pitchers to debut with the A's over the past 15 years. That being said, of course Gray can't wear that ace title yet. We still haven't seen a full season out of him. I do however feel comfortable saying that he's off to the ace-iest start of any A's pitcher in the Billy Beane era, and that's saying something.

If you're still not convinced by those stats, here are some advanced stats for you to consider:

Goes deep into games

Dominates

Killer "out" pitch

Makes the opposition look feeble

Challenges good hitters

Healthy and durable

Must watch him pitch

Opposing fans can't help but admire him

Big game pitcher

Oh Hell Yeah

Gush away A's fans!

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