Sonny Gray, Perfecting What Works

Tom Pennington

Kudos to O_H_W for an excellent Fanpost that deserves front page recognition! -Nico

Tip: Click on any acronyms for an explanation in the FanGraphs glossary of terms.

With his final turn in the rotation for July completed, we’ve now had almost exactly one full year of Sonny Gray – one year of the 24-year-old starting pitcher, the up-and-coming staff ace, the dueler of Playoff Verlanders. In that year, we’ve seen him do some great things, like going eight innings with nine Ks and no runs against the Tigers in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS. We’ve also seen MLB Fan Cave forcing him to prank New Yorkers as a result of some unknown fine print embedded in his rookie contract. Above all else, the one thing we’ve always known is that Sonny Gray has a really good curveball. Let’s take a look at it for all of its 12 to 6, 80-MPH Uncle Charlie glory, from a game against the Astros in August of last year:


How good is his curveball? He has never given up a home run off of the pitch, with the only extra base hits against the curve in his career being four doubles. In the past calendar year, Sonny Gray has saved more runs with his curveball than any other pitcher in baseball, and is behind only Corey Kluber and Yu Darvish in Runs Saved/100 curveballs. Having watched Kluber a lot, I suspect his slider/slurve is actually being classified as a curveball; I think it looks like a slider, but PITCHf/x doesn’t, so I will defer to the all-knowing pitch computer. Regardless, with the metrics we’re about to examine, Sonny Gray has one of the best curveballs in the game. What we’re going to focus on specifically are the advances in his curve’s effectiveness, spurred on by an adjustment in the way he throws the pitch.

To start, let’s take a look at the top-15 starters by wCB and wCB/C for the past calendar year:


As stated before, Gray is at the top in both of these categories. We should put a little more stock into wCB/C, as it normalizes all pitchers to runs saved per 100 pitches, taking away the advantage that one player might have due to throwing a certain pitch more frequently than another player. This is important for what we’re looking at, because Sonny Gray throws a lot of curveballs. How frequently does he throw curveballs? Here are the leaders for percentage of curveballs thrown over the last calendar year:

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The words "second only to Scott Feldman" don’t come up very often, but here they are. Gray throws his curveball a ton. Not only has he always leaned on the curve as a major weapon in his arsenal, but he has actually increased his number of curves thrown since he came into the league every month except for May (when he maintained his % thrown) and June of this year, when he seemed to temporarily lose a feel for the pitch and threw more changeups. However, his first start of July had Gray saying this after holding Toronto to one run over seven innings:

"That was the idea, to really get (it) going again," Gray said of the curveball. "I think the last five or six starts it's been OK, but it hasn't been a big factor. We did some things a little different this week and I was able to find that again."

Over the last 30 days, Gray has thrown the curveball more than ever, up to over 32% for the month. Not only that, he has found more effectiveness in the pitch, with his whiff % on the curve up to a career-best 19.2% during July. There’s also reason to believe that this isn’t simply a good month for Sonny Gray’s curveball – what we are now seeing is the fruition of a change of approach with the way he throws the pitch that has been coming for some time now. Let’s take a look.

Here we have the release speed of Sonny Gray’s curveball for every start since he was called up:


He’s throwing the curve harder than he ever has, adding over three miles per hour since he started pitching in the majors. That’s not a small change. On top of the speed increase, he’s cut about 2.5 inches of vertical movement off his curve between his first start in the majors and now:


Finally, he’s added more three-dimensional depth to his curve in the form of a top-3 best horizontal movement over the past calendar year. Only Corey Kluber and Charlie Morton have had better horizontal movement on their curves in that time period.

Add all of that up, and we have this 84-MPH curve from his last start against the Orioles:


It now looks more like a slurve, with its high release speed and nasty late break away from right-handed hitters. As Eno Sarris included in his great article from October of last year, Gray said he "adds and subtracts" with the same grip on his curve to move between the 12-to-6 and slurve (which is sometimes classified as a slider) varieties. However, it seems as if he has leaned more toward the slurve option as time has gone on.

One question that arises out of this is "why throw the slurve more?"

Given his whiff % on the curve has increased as he has added velocity, I’d say that fact alone has supported the move to the slurve over the 12-to-6. However, there’s another potential reason that isn’t strictly rooted in statistics, and could be more about what goes into an elite pitching approach: by increasing his arm speed and flattening out the vertical movement of his curve, Gray can further deceive batters into thinking he’s throwing hard pitches before the bottom drops out. His struggles to find consistency with the changeup are well documented, so why shouldn't he adjust his best breaking pitch to better fool hitters for whiffs and weak contact? As we’ve seen with Yu Darvish, the pinnacle of an ace approach may be one that includes a "great convergence" of arm slots and release points, in which every pitch looks hard until it’s not, or until it is.

Gray’s horizontal release points for all of his pitches are closer to one another than they ever have been during his major league career. Not unsurprisingly, his curveball and fastball were released on average at the almost identical horizontal point during his May and July starts, when he posted career-best whiff rates on his curveball (18.6% & 19.2%, respectively). June was an aberration, as Gray seemed to lose his release point in general and was tinkering with his delivery, leaning more on the changeup:


Sonny Gray has work to do on parts of his game before he takes the next step into the true elite of starting pitchers. His walk rate has actually increased this year to 8.5%, owing mostly to a lack of fastball command in deep counts, and his changeup is still very much a work in progress as a third pitch. However, his adoption of the hard curve and syncing of arm angles is a positive step toward dominance, and is a sign that he knows what works; he’s now perfecting it.

And now, my first go at a DShep Darvish-like GIF of Sonny Gray's 12-to-6 curve from last August along with his harder slurve from his last start to compare: