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Athletics 2014 season review: Sonny Gray shines

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This is the most Sonny Gray photo ever -- it contains both sunshine and a gray uni.
This is the most Sonny Gray photo ever -- it contains both sunshine and a gray uni.
Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

Just a week to go until the 2015 season, but at least this player review will be relevant to the upcoming campaign. Next is No. 54, Sonny Gray.

Player profile

Name: Sonny Gray, aka ... dude, his name is already Sonny
Position: RHP, starting
Stats: 33 starts, 3.08 ERA, 120 ERA+, 219 innings, 183 Ks, 74 BB, 15 HR
WAR: 3.2 bWAR, 3.1 fWAR
How he got here: Drafted* in 1st round in 2011
2014 Salary: $502,500
2015 Status: Pre-arbitration, under team control
2015 Salary: something around $502,500

* Sonny is the first player on this list who was actually drafted by Oakland. He is the 37th player we've covered. The only other one will be Sean Doolittle, and even then the A's drafted him as a hitter.

Season summary

Sonny Gray entered 2014 as the golden boy of the Oakland A's, with expectations that he would step up and become the ace of the staff at age 24. There were bigger, more established names on the roster, but the fact that Sonny was still an emerging prospect with a high ceiling made him the crown jewel of the organization. He'd already looked dominant in a 64-inning MLB trial in 2013, and then he'd out-dueled Justin Freaking Verlander in the playoffs; in the end he even got the call for Game 5 of the ALDS over Bartolo Colon, who finished sixth in the Cy Young voting that year.

Just in case, Billy Beane brought in free agent Scott Kazmir during the offseason as a solid veteran presence to keep Sonny company at the top of the rotation, but there was no question who was labeled as the No. 1 guy on Opening Day. So, between Sonny's high draft pedigree, former top 100 prospect status, exciting talent, and initial success in the Majors, all eyes were on him. But did he actually pitch like an ace?

During 2014, Sonny was absolutely brilliant at times but also hit some rough stretches. He won AL Pitcher of the Month honors in both April (1.76 ERA in 6 starts) and July (1.03 ERA in 5 starts) -- by my cursory look through the list, nobody has won the AL version of that award twice in the same season since Felix Hernandez in 2009. Sonny did stumble a bit in June (5.40 ERA) and then faded a bit down the stretch, but if a 24-year-old pitcher is lights out all season long then his name is probably Clayton Kershaw. Besides, who didn't fade down the stretch on this team? The important thing was that when it came down to the final day of the season and the A's needed a win to make the playoffs, he reached back and fired a six-hit shutout to carry Oakland to a Wild Card berth.

That Game 162 shutout wasn't even his best performance of the season, though. On April 23, Martin Perez of the Texas Rangers strode into the Coliseum and tossed a shutout to beat Sonny and the A's. It was demoralizing to see the Rangers' young gun so thoroughly out-pitch Oakland's own developing star. But then, just five days later on April 28, the A's traveled to Arlington. Sonny got his chance for a re-match, not against Perez but instead against world-famous ace Yu Darvish. This time, it was Sonny throwing a shutout, with only two hits and a walk allowed -- an even better line than Perez had produced in his winning effort the previous week.

In fact, Sonny's first shutout was so good that it was the single best start by any A's pitcher all year, as measured by Game Score. He earned a score of 88, and although that only tied for the 27th-best start in the Majors last year (Kershaw's no-hitter led with a 102) that was only because of his relatively low strikeout total (six). With no runs and only three baserunners allowed, the only way Sonny's outing could have realistically been better would have been with double-digit Ks; he was only five points back of 10th place, and you get one extra point for each strikeout.

Overall, Game Score says that Sonny produced four of the 17 best A's starts this season. Only Scott Kazmir had more, with five (but Kaz also had the next two on the list, for a total of seven of the top 19). You would expect your ace to have more than a quarter of your best starts, and by this measure you could make a better argument for Kazmir as the top guy. Heck, when it came time to fill out the AL All-Star pitching staff, it was Kazmir who had the slightly better numbers and got the nod.

I think the reality is that the A's didn't have an ace in the first half of 2014, and that's why Billy went out and paid premiums for Shark and Jon Lester. Sonny and Kaz were pretty even for most of last year, with Kaz starting out a bit stronger but then fading at the end such that Sonny ended up with the better overall numbers. Each of them just felt more like No. 2 starters on that ever-subjective 1-thru-5 scale, borderline All-Stars who can hang in the top of a rotation but can't carry a team on their backs.

But just to make sure, let's look at some other hurlers who posted similar stats to Sonny's to see what kinds of names make good comps.

Zack Greinke: 129 ERA+ (2.71 ERA) in 202⅓ innings
Max Scherzer: 127 ERA+ (315 ERA) 220⅓ innings
Jeff Samardzija: 126 ERA+ (2.99 ERA) in 219⅓ innings
Julio Teheran: 126 ERA+ (2.89 ERA) in 220 innings
Yordano Ventura: 125 ERA+ (3.20 ERA) in 183 innings
James Shields: 124 ERA+ (3.21 ERA) in 227 innings
Sonny Gray: 120 ERA+ (3.08 ERA) in 219 innings
Tyson Ross: 119 ERA+ (2.81 ERA) in 195⅔ innings
Stephen Strasburg: 119 ERA+ (3.14 ERA) in 215 innings
Madison Bumgarner:  117 ERA+ (2.98 ERA) in 217⅓ innings
David Price: 117 ERA+ (3.26 ERA) in 248⅓ innings
Edinson Volquez: 117 ERA+ (3.04 ERA) in 192⅔ innings

He's actually in better company than I thought he would be here. There are a couple former Cy Young winners not far above him, and a few superstars just below him. For the most part, that is a group of No. 1 starters with a few guys mixed in who are making bids to establish themselves as No. 1 starters. And Edinson Volquez.

Jeremy Guthrie: 2.53 strikeouts-per-walk
Wily Peralta: 2.52 K/BB
Matt Garza: 2.52 K/BB
Lance Lynn: 2.51 K/BB (181 Ks, 72 BB)
Jake Peavy: 2.51 K/BB
Sonny Gray: 2.47 K/BB (183 Ks, 74 BB)
Eric Stults: 2.47 K/BB
Justin Verlander: 2.45 K/BB
Wade Miley: 2.44 K/BB (183 Ks, 75 BB)
Clay Buchholz: 2.44 K/BB
Chris Archer: 2.40 K/BB

This list is less impressive, especially when you consider that these were the broken versions of Verlander and Buchholz and the declining version of Peavy. The closest comp here is Lynn, who replicated Sonny's percentage of both strikeouts and walks nearly exactly (Miley matched the raw totals but in fewer innings). Yordano Ventura barely missed this list (2.30 K/BB) but was right there with Lynn and Sonny in K% and BB%. All of those guys are good pitchers, but none of them have ever been considered aces. I believe that K/BB rate is one of the most important stats for analyzing a pitcher, especially for projecting the future success of a young pitcher, so while a 2.47 is acceptable for now it also doesn't have me jumping out of my chair with excitement. Sort of like a Lance Lynn comp -- cool, but I'd be a lot happier about comparing my No. 2 starter to Lynn than my No. 1 guy.

James Shields: 3.3 bWAR
Masahiro Tanaka: 3.3 bWAR
Yordano Ventura: 3.2 bWAR
Sonny Gray: 3.2 bWAR
Yu Darvish: 3.2 bWAR
Jason Hammel: 3.1 bWAR (lol)
Jacob deGrom: 3.1 bWAR

Note that this is a counting stat, and Tanaka, Darvish and deGrom each hovered around 140 innings but still matched Sonny's overall value. Ventura was 30 frames short of Sonny's total. Even Hammel needed 40 fewer innings. Among guys who finished around Sonny's 219 frames, there was Shields, Strasburg (3.5 bWAR), and Jered Weaver in an off year with declined velocity (3.0 bWAR). What about the other WAR?

Tyson Ross: 3.2 fWAR
Scott Kazmir: 3.2 fWAR
Tanner Roark: 3.2 fWAR
Sonny Gray: 3.1 fWAR
Mark Buehrle: 3.1 fWAR
Hisashi Iwakuma: 3.1 fWAR
Ervin Santana: 3.1 fWAR
Brandon McCarthy: 3.0 fWAR

Shields is also right there with 3.3 fWAR, though Ventura is all the way down at 1.8. Again, Iwakuma was 40 innings shorter, and only Buehrle (202) and McCarthy (200) even reached 200. Shields and Teheran (3.5) were the only fWAR comps who also matched Sonny's workload. Lance Lynn (3.7 bWAR, 3.4 fWAR) also just missed both lists.

***

So, there are a few names for you: James Shields, Julio Teheran, Yordano Ventura and Lance Lynn. Those were the closest comps for Sonny's 2014 season. Let's toss out Shields because he's in a completely different part of his career than the others, as the mid-30s veteran who has nearly 2,000 MLB innings on his arm and just signed his last big contract; he was once even better than he is now. I'm cautiously holding back on Lynn, too, because this was his third full season starting and his second time over 200 frames; the other two guys were only in their first or second full years of starting in MLB and set significant career-highs in innings. It's settled: Sonny's top 2014 comps were Julio Teheran and Yordano Ventura.

Now, those aren't bad comps. Both of those guys are considered up-and-comers just like Sonny is, and their fans probably have similar amounts of love for them as we do for him (they're also both still with the teams who signed them as amateurs, too, just like Sonny). All three hurlers made huge strides last season, but being an ace means not only establishing a high baseline but also maintaining it consistently for years at a time. If one of those three stepped up and won a Cy Young this year, though, it would be a pleasant surprise but not a huge shock -- they're all supposed to be awesome someday, and their 2014 seasons were the alarm clocks alerting you that someday had just begun.

Was Sonny an ace last year? No, I don't think he was, not with two long slumps and an elevated walk total and a shortage of eye-popping individual outings. I think he was fantastic, but he pitched like a No. 2 starter. However, he was also only 24 years old, in his first full MLB season. You're not supposed to be ace-level yet at that point in your career. Heck, you don't even have to be good yet by then. Sonny may not have achieved ace status yet, but he did confirm his ace potential. He showed the initial results to match his raw talent, and it's not hard to see how he could take the next step as soon as this season. He's no longer a mythical prospect, a jumble of what-ifs who we hope can turn into a pitcher -- he's got that first strong 200-inning campaign under his belt, and he didn't need fluky peripherals or an unsustainable BABIP to get there. Even better, he flashed the kind of big-game cojones you want to see from your top gun (the two well-timed shutouts), as well as the extended stretches of dominance you also want (two Pitcher of the Month awards).

Sonny's not on top of that mountain yet, but the summit is within his sight and he's got everything he needs to get there. If last year was his personal peak, then he'll have a darn good career. But if it was just the foothill of an even higher climb, then he'll become something truly special. Either way, shine on Sonny.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: A- ... We expected our top young pitcher to break out and establish himself, and he did just that. He wasn't an ace, but remember that he also could have failed completely, as most young pitchers do (even the highly touted ones). Achieving No. 2 quality in what was essentially (but not technically) his rookie year is about as good as you can hope for. He could have gotten an A by receiving Cy Young votes.

2014 season grade, overall: A- ... He ranked 24th in all of baseball in ERA+, and 11th in innings. Whatever label you put on that kind of production, it's still excellent. Basically, any better than that and he'd have gotten an A.

Video highlights

Sonny's first career shutout, in April against the Rangers.

His second career shutout, in September against the Rangers (in Game 162, to win the second Wild Card).

Sonny strikes out a career-high 12 batters.

One thing about Sonny that is often overlooked is his defense. He is quick and athletic off the mound, and he's willing to get dirty to make a play. On this one, he got a big assist from first base itself, but he's so smooth that he somehow made this fluky play look totally routine, as if he'd practiced it all winter.

This might be his best defensive play of the year, though. He's just trying to knock the ball down however he can, and instead he kick-saves it right to the first baseman.

***

Now we sit back and watch to find out if Sonny becomes an ace in 2015. But if all he does is repeat his strong numbers from last year, well, that would be just dandy as well.