Of all the things wrong with the Oakland A's so far in 2016, perhaps nothing is more troubling than the performance of Sonny Gray. The ace starter is off to a terrible start, with a 6.00 ERA and elevated levels of walks, hits and homers. There are no reports of any injury -- in fact, he is specifically reported as being healthy -- and nothing about his velocity or pitch selection should lead us to speculate that there's anything wrong with him physically.
It's good to know that Sonny is healthy, but in a way that makes this situation all the more troubling. When a player struggles due to injury it's easy to figure out the problem, but when he's pitching like a gascan despite feeling great there's a whole new layer of uncertainty wrapped around him. Over at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan wonders if the problem is in Sonny's mechanics.
Of course, the good news is that today is May 13. Baseball does not reveal its true colors in five-week stints, but rather over the course of many months and even years. Time goes on, players get hot or cold, and they make adjustments to their games when necessary. It's on Sonny to figure out what's wrong and fix it, but it's not like he's the first pitcher who has ever had a slump.
To illustrate that point, let's take a walk through MLB and find some other ace starters who are struggling out the gate in 2016. Perhaps one or two of these guys really are on their way downhill and this current decline is real, but for the most part these pitchers are going to look pretty good by the end of September.
David Price | 6.00 ERA
2016 stats: 8 starts, 2.53 FIP, 48 ip, 65 Ks, 13 BB, 4 HR, 51 hits, 73 ERA+
It's not entirely clear what is wrong with Price. His peripherals are as good as ever, with a 2.53 FIP anchored by a career-high strikeout rate. On the surface it looks like just a matter of some extra hits, and that .388 BABIP probably won't last long. Unless it does! After all, his velocity is noticably down after averaging 226 innings each of the last six years (including playoffs).
Ben Buchanan of Over The Monster notes that Price changed something in his mechanics for his start Thursday, and he ended up dominating the Astros with a dozen strikeouts. Was that his first step out of the doldrums, or just a tease?
Zack Greinke | 5.26 ERA
2016 stats: 8 starts, 3.62 FIP, 49⅔ ip, 44 Ks, 12 BB, 6 HR, 62 hits, 83 ERA+
Greinke is off to a rough start to his $200 million contract in Arizona. His velocity is identical to last year, and his FIP is a more reasonable 3.62 thanks to good peripherals. But again, that hit rate is enormous thanks to a .366 BABIP. Most likely he will buck that trend, unless this just happens to be the year he gives up lots of hits. These kinds of things can happen, and the off-years don't even have to mean anything.
It's worth noting that both Price and Greinke are with new teams, playing on freshly minted mega-contracts. That could always be a factor. Greinke struggled in his first month with the Brewers in 2011, albeit coming off an injury. But he didn't seem fazed in the opening days of his first mega-deal with the Dodgers, and Price is now on his fourth team in the last three seasons so he's getting used to changes in scenery by now -- he was huge for Toronto last year when they brought him on board. But still, let's move on to someone who didn't change uniforms last winter.
Dallas Keuchel | 5.58 ERA
2016 stats: 8 starts, 4.04 FIP, 50 ip, 42 Ks, 22 BB, 5 HR, 58 hits, 72 ERA+
Keuchel started against Price on Thursday, and the Red Sox shelled him for eight runs. That's one more than they scored off Sonny! Perhaps the Red Sox are just really good.
Even still, though, last year's Cy Young winner is struggling. His walk rate has doubled, his hits have skyrocketed, and his velocity is down by nearly 2 mph. Like with Price and Greinke, he's managed to scratch out a couple of vintage outings (like 8 shutout innings against Detroit), but the consistency hasn't been there.
Adam Wainwright | 6.80 ERA
2016 stats: 8 starts, 4.32 FIP, 45 ip, 26 Ks, 13 BB, 5 HR, 59 hits, 60 ERA+
Wainwright might not deserve to be on this list, since he missed virtually all of 2015 with a ruptured Achilles. He's also 34, and over the last seven years he's missed two full seasons with significant injuries (also a TJS in 2011) and averaged 240 innings in the healthy campaigns (with a high of 276 in 2013). At some point you have to expect some natural decline.
His velocity is normal, though, and this thorough analysis at Viva El Birdos focuses more on things like arm slot and pitch location -- like Sonny, Waino seems to be leaving his pitches up for some reason. That's good news for the Cardinals because those problems are probably easier to fix than rediscovering lost miles on an aging fastball.
Chris Archer | 4.57 ERA
2016 stats: 8 starts, 4.44 FIP, 43⅓ ip, 54 Ks, 21 BB, 8 HR, 46 hits, 85 ERA+
Even though Archer has the lowest ERA on the list, he might be the best comp for our discussion. He's the closest in age to Sonny. Also, his FIP is the worst of all these guys and is essentially identical to Sonny's, thanks to similarly bloated rates of walks, hits, and homers. Each brings his own signature skill -- Archer has managed to maintain his huge strikeout rate, whereas Sonny has at least completed seven frames on three occasions while Archer hasn't done so at all.
Archer's velocity is down a tick from where it was last year, but then again, last year it was up a tick so who knows which number to believe. He looked like he was getting hot at the end of April but then had another stinker against the Mariners in his last outing.
To wrap things up, here's Sonny for the sake of comparison:
Sonny Gray | 6.00 ERA
2016 stats: 7 starts, 4.48 FIP, 39 ip, 34 Ks, 18 BB, 5 HR, 43 hits, 66 ERA+
Are those numbers really any worse than the ones you see above? He can't lean back on a ton of strikeouts like a few of these guys, but he's also one of the fortunate ones who has maintained his velocity. And he's the only one with the excuse of pitching in front of the hands-down worst defense in baseball.
Overall, the list includes three Cy Young winners (Price, Greinke, Keuchel), two more top-5 finishers from last year (Sonny, Archer), and another guy with four career top-3 finishes (Wainwright). Three of them are over 30 years old, three of them under. Three of these aces are missing some velocity, and the other three aren't. Two of them just seem to be suffering from fluky hit rates, while three can't stop walking batters.
It's possible that one of these pitchers really is finished, or injured, or having what we will look back on as an off-year that lasts all season. But on May 13, there's not a single one whom I want to bet against just yet.
Click here to try out FanDuel daily fantasy baseball! New players win cash in their first league or get their entry fee refunded. If you want to pick one of these starters to go against the grain, I'd look for Price due to his strikeouts.