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Eyeball Scout: What’s Wrong With Sonny Gray?

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Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics
“Stat”? You don’t want to know.
Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

A few games each year, the Eyeball Scout enjoys (or doesn’t enjoy, as the case may be) a game from the front row of section 117. This gives a view that probably mirrors the batter’s view of pitches as closely as any seat in the house. From that vantage point you can glean somewhat of a sense of what pitches are looking like to the hitter and you can practically read the name on the tag of C.B. Bucknor’s guide dog. It might be "Coin Flip" but I’m not certain.

Anyhoo, I had the pleasure, and by "pleasure" I mean "misfortune," of being in the good seats for Sonny Gray’s start last night. 7 runs, 9 hits, and 2 HRs later, here’s what it looked like...

First off, Gray’s breaking pitches look like they are sharp and deceptive as ever, with that late diving action which had batters oft swinging over them as if they were strikes. It’s the fastball that "ain’t what it used to be" even the radar gun seems to think it ai almost exactly what it used to be.

What Gray’s fastball lacked was "late finish," which is different from movement, velocity, or any other tangible quality that Fangraphs can chart and report. "Late finish" is the difference between a fastball that explodes on the hitter and one that comes up quickly but arrives on a tee with the "hit me" label facing the batter.

In contrast to the deceptive and late-diving curve, Gray’s fastball lacked that diving action that turns contact into routine ground balls. Much of the contact was "hard contact" even when the ball wasn’t airborne. But movement aside, the fastball that came in at a high velocity simply didn’t explode at the end so much as it lingered.

What does this mean from a physics perspective? Perhaps it has to do with how much velocity is sustained or lost from release to arrival, perhaps it has to do with deception and perception from the batter’s (and last night my) point of view. Whatever it is, however quantifiable it may or may not be, it is a real thing and it distinguished Gray’s fastball from Matt Moore’s even when at identical velocities.

In sum, Gray’s breaking stuff looks fine to me and his fastball velocity is not an issue. Missing is both the late sinking action and more generally any "late finish" and the result is too much "hit me" and not enough "giddyup" — even at 93 MPH.

The solution? If I had any clue whatsoever I would be a very rich man. Actually, I wouldn’t because I would gladly tell Sonny for free just so I could watch him return to dominance. At his best, Gray can "pitch to contact" with his fastball daring batters to pound it into the ground and he can get tentative swings on the fastball because it isn’t easy to track. Last night the swings were confident from batters easily tracking and gauging the fastball at any velocity.

If I were the A’s and Gray, I wouldn’t be quite so focused on "location" as the big issue. It’s "late finish" and late sinking action which is missing on the most hittable pitch in Gray’s arsenal right now: the fastball that used to be a weapon no less devastating than his killer curve.

So that’s what’s wrong with Sonny Gray, according to the Eyeball Scout’s view from the "batter’s box" — too bad that this analysis, no corresponding solution, and $3.50, will get you no more than a latte and a 5.49 ERA.