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On Sonny Gray's return from the disabled list

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Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past week, things have gotten progressively dire for an already in-shambles Oakland Athletics rotation. Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn pitched horribly, and our status as the Baseball Gods' sweat rag was reaffirmed when Rich Hill's injury proved to be DL worthy.

There seems to be one hope for watchable starting pitching as an A's fan, two if you count becoming a fan of every opposing pitcher. That hope is Sonny Gray, the A's bonafide ace turned dud over the course of about seven seconds. I'm starting to think we missed the Baseball Gods' birtheday. After an awful start to his season, Gray was put on the disabled list with a strained trapezius and missing slider. His velocity was always fine but his stuff and command was off. How did he look against the Astros?

The return of the a breaking ball

From 2014 to 2015, Sonny took a big step forward. He was an excellent pitcher before, but in 2015, Gray solidified his standing as an ace. There's almost never one singular cause for a pitcher's changing, baseball is an incredibly nuanced game. But the most obvious difference came in Sonnny's repertoire. He upped his slider usage substantially in lieu of his curveball. His curveball is an excellent pitch but his slider is better, and the increase in usage seemed to help his fastball too.

Year Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve Cutter
2015 36.49% 23.83% 6.88% 16.69% 13.66% 2.45%
2014 29.94% 24.91% 7.29% 10.75% 27.02% 0%
2013 47.92% 17.05% 5.99% 3.49% 25.54% 0%

Fast forward to this year, and you already know the tragic tale. His slider has been missing (contact Nico if you've seen it) but instead of increasing his curveball usage substantially, he's increased his not very good changeup instead. The curveball usage is up some compared to last year, but it's been a worse pitch in terms of movement and command and the increase in usage isn't commensurate to the missing slider. Sonny needs a consistent breaking ball to be successful.

Year Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve Cutter
2016 42.19% 17.55% 13.94% 8.29% 15.38% 2.64%

On Sunday, the breaking ball usage was up. Way up! Before his start against the Astros, he was throwing breaking balls just 23.5% of the time. On, Sunday that number climbed to 36%. That's good! It suggests Sonny is feeling healthier, has a better feel, or both. It's much more in line with 2014/2015 Sonny. Here's what his repertoire looked like.

Vs. Astros Fourseam Sinker Change Slider Curve Cutter
10.14% 53.62% 0%% 5.80% 30.43% 0%

Unfortunately, the slider remained curiously missing. Of his 25 breaking balls, 21 were curveballs and just four of were sliders. Again, the curveball can be very good but in a perfect world, the slider would be back too.

The good news is, the curveball was much more effective than it was early on this season. Before, as Jeff Sullivan wrote, his curveball wasn't seeing any success as he was missing the zone by too much, too frequently for hitters to be enticed. On Sunday, hitters whiffed on seven (33%) of his curveballs, and took five more for strikes. The control he was missing earlier this season was at least partially back, and it allowed Sonny to use the pitch more frequently, with better results.

2016 Curveball Strike % Whiffs Swing % BIP %
Pre DL 25.00% 13.28% 41.41% 15.63%
Post DL 42.86% 33.33% 47.62% 9.52%

The missing slider is still a concern but he can be successful without it. At the very least, with a working curveball, he's an effective starting pitcher. He's not a guy who will put up a 6.00 ERA, even if that means his status as an ace is up in the air.

And of course, it's just one start, all this could change in a hurry. It won't take much for Sonny to prove he's back, but in a league of adjustments, he'll need to prove a few times over his repertoire and command is still around. Sunday was a good, but not perfect start to getting his season back on track.