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What Can We Expect From Sonny Gray?

A detailed look at the present and future of top Oakland pitching prospect Sonny Gray.


Since this is my first post at AN, perhaps I should say a few words about myself and what I'm about. I tend to go into exaggerated tales of self-discovery when I do that, though, so I'm going to consciously keep it brief. Some of you are probably familiar with my work at a bunch of different places over the years, and if you are, you probably know I focus on two things: sabermetrics and scouting. I started out as a hardcore post-Moneyball sabermetric type and gradually blended in more and more of a scouting perspective--I've already attended almost three dozen minor league games this year--and I fully appreciate what both methods have to offer in baseball evaluation.

I live on the East Coast (Winston-Salem, NC, to be exact), and as such, while I do have extensive opportunities to see minor league baseball (there may be no better city in America to have proximity to so many MiLB stadiums), I rarely get to see the farmhands of my beloved A's. However, last week, I decided to splurge and go on a four-day trip to Nashville to catch the visiting Sacramento River Cats in action.

It was a worthwhile trip, and I could probably easily write ten thousand words describing the players that comprise the River Cats roster, but because I don't have that kind of writing stamina and I'm guessing you don't have that kind of reading stamina, I'm going to limit the discussion today to just vaunted pitching prospect Sonny Gray.

Before we get to what I learned about Oakland's 2011 first-round pick, let's first look at what we as a community know about Gray. Picked 18th overall out of Vanderbilt University two years ago, the righthander was billed as an explosive yet polished arm with two bigtime pitches--a fastball that reached 97 mph and a big overhand curveball. His small size, the effort in his delivery, and his lack of a third pitch led some to believe he was destined to be a reliever rather than a starter, though.

Gray was so polished at the time of his drafting that the A's essentially sent him straight to Double-A, where he responded by allowing just a single earned run in twenty innings down the stretch, striking out eighteen and walking just six. However, a return trip to Midland for the 2012 season proved less stellar, as his strikeout rate dropped to a weak 15.4% and his walk rate rose to a decent but unexceptional 9.1%. It seemed that all of his supposed polish was not materializing, and he was stagnating much like another former A's first-round pick, James Simmons (who, incidentally, also threw for Sacramento in the series).

Fast forward to the present day, though, and Gray has taken remarkably well to the hitter-friendly environs of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. He has a 2.49 ERA and a 2.65 FIP, and he's added 7.9% to his strikeout rate without adding any walks. He also has a 55% groundball rate for both this year and his career according to Minor League Central, which is excellent. It seems that he's rounding into MLB form, and as a result, he's been repeatedly mentioned as someone to take over for Jarrod Parker as Parker has been up-and-down this season.

But that's just what the numbers and some general reports say. What does Sonny Gray actually look like? What does he do that produces these numbers, and how can we expect it to translate to the Coliseum if and when he gets the call?

A lot of people like to start a report of a pitcher off by discussing what he throws. In this case, though, I think it's worth dedicating some space up front to how Gray throws.

Here's a video of Gray pitching at Vanderbilt in 2010:

Vanderbilt Sophomore RHP Sonny Gray vs. UCLA (via rkyosh007)

A few things jump out. Gray used a bit of a hip turn, had a very long, slow delivery out of the windup including raising the ball over his head, had a pronounced back-leg collapse, and had a high-effort followthrough.

This is what he looked like in the May 11 start I attended:

Sacramento RHP Sonny Gray vs Nashville RF Khris Davis, 5.11.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)

Well, that's about the quietest delivery imaginable. It's much more rhythmic from start to finish, and there's very little wasted or exaggerated motion. Further, he's standing taller on his back leg, which is good--at 5'11", Gray can't afford to lose any of the little downward plane he has by artificially shortening himself. It's not often you see a pitcher look that dramatically different mechanically from college to his second full year of pro ball without some special case like converting to sidearming, so Gray's mechanical transition may speak a lot to both his poor 2012 (making adjustments) and successful start to 2013 (having implemented those adjustments successfully.

So, what does he throw? Gray's primary weapon of choice, as you can see in that clip (look at how late Khris Davis, who is a heck of a hitter, was on that third pitch!), is his four-seam fastball, which works in the low 90s and will touch 95 mph or so when he needs it. There's a bit of a cognitive dissonance effect with such a small pitcher with such an effortless delivery uncorking such legitimate heat, which tends to make his fastball jump on hitters. He is very aggressive with the offering and will work all four quadrants of the zone with it, not hesitating to challenge hitters, as can be seen in that Davis at-bat. However, you can see clearly in the Davis clip that the pitch is fairly straight.

Gray's other pitch is his...I guess I'll call it a curveball. It's a strange pitch, and that's not to say it's a bad pitch. In fact, I was quite audibly impressed with the one he threw in this sequence:

Sacramento RHP Sonny Gray vs Nashville 1B Sean Halton, 5.11.13 (via Nathaniel Stoltz)

A nice, sharp breaker, that pitch. But at the same time, it's kind of odd. It's obviously a hard, short breaking ball--it's not a Barry Zito/Travis Blackley/A.J. Griffin big overhand spinner. It has the velocity of a slider in the low 80s, but its trajectory--more vertical than horizontal, suggests a curveball.

Gray doesn't have much of a changeup. He'll throw one in the upper 80s every now and then, but the pitch lacks bite or much to distinguish it from just being a slower version of the flat fastball.

So what does that leave us with? Gray has good mechanics, he attacks the zone, he throws hard, and he has a breaking ball with sharp movement to complement his fastball. However, he lacks a good third pitch, and perhaps more problematically, there isn't a whole lot of movement to his game. All three of his pitches--fastball, curve, and change--have substantially below-average sink on them for their pitch types, which calls into question how well Gray is going to be able to maintain the excellent groundball rates he's posted to this point.

Gray tends to compensate for this lack of movement by changing hitters' eye levels like a veteran--witness the strikeout of Sean Halton in the above clip, where he throws a get-me-over-fastball, a down-and-away fastball, a chase-pitch down-and-away breaking ball, and then goes for the high heat to finish Halton off. The ability to sequence locations in this fashion is a good skill to have, but one has to wonder how significant of a hit Gray's statistics will take once he faces hitters who can think along with him and turn around flat 94-mph letter-high heat. We've seen Dan Straily run into some significant issues in that department in his MLB time. Further, Gray's limited arsenal may not play well multiple times through the order.

If Straily's 2012 stretch run gopheritis is the downside of Gray's odd skillset, then Bartolo Colon represents some of the more positive aspect of Gray's approach. Like Gray, Colon does not have a deep arsenal, but he finds success anyway by being aggressive, challenging hitters, and not allowing extraneous baserunners--a nice recipe if you have a solid defense and a pitcher-friendly park behind you. The specifics of Gray's and Colon's arsenal's are different, of course--Colon relies on fastball movement and rarely goes offspeed at all, whereas Gray throws harder and straighter and regularly turns to his breaking pitch--but the pitching mentalities aren't all that different.

All told, I'm not 100% sold on Gray as a future A's rotation fixture. I do think that he would be a very good relief pitcher if moved to the bullpen, but that doesn't mean I'm advocating for him to get yanked from the River Cats' rotation--if the "demotion" is going to happen, it should be due to Gray flunking out of a starting role (something he clearly has not done yet), not mere conjecture based on his atypical profile. It's not too difficult to imagine him becoming an Ervin Santana-style two-pitch starter who succeeds on pounding the zone with two plus offerings and nothing else, but it's also not a big stretch to worry about his limitations being exposed against the world's best offensive talent and forcing him into a power relief role in the long run. He's a very difficult player to get a handle on because there aren't a whole lot of players with comparable skillsets, but he certainly remains quite intriguing, and it will be fascinating to see how he fares when he is summoned to the Coliseum.

(I took video of over half of Gray's batters faced in the outing. Find it all here. For more of my collection of over 1000 prospect videos from this season alone, including much more from the River Cats series, check this out, and follow me on Twitter if you so desire.)