What to Expect from Sonny Gray in Pressure-Packed ALDS Game 5

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What to Expect from Sonny Gray in Pressure-Packed ALDS Game 5

Rookie Sonny Gray—not Bartolo Colon—will start Thursday night’s deciding Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers.

With the best-of-five ALDS tied at two games apiece and headed back to Oakland, A’s manager Bob Melvin decided to bypass the 40-year-old Colon, an 18-game winner and All-Star during the regular season, in favor of the 23-year-old right-hander.

In the series opener, a 3-2 loss, Colon surrendered three runs in the first inning and put the A’s in an early hole against Max Scherzer. Gray, of course, was brilliant in Game 2, tossing eight shutout innings with nine strikeouts as part of a memorable pitchers’ duel opposite Justin Verlander. The A’s ultimately won the game, 1-0, when catcher Stephen Vogt roped a bases-loaded single up the middle in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Melvin elaborated on his decision to go with Gray over Colon on Wednesday:

"Obviously, we had two great options there with Bartolo," A's manager Bob Melvin said during a late-afternoon conference call Wednesday. "We looked at it at a bunch of different angles. We have a lot of smart people in our front office and in our baseball operations and the short of it is it came down to Sonny and the last game he pitched in similar conditions in our ballpark. So that's the route we're going to go."

Despite Gray’s success against the Tigers in Game 2 and the fact that he’ll be pitching in similar ballpark conditions on Thursday, there’s no telling how the rookie will react to the pressures of an elimination game. Although, it certainly helps that the A’s have won each of his last five starts.

 

ALDS Game 2: A Quick Review

Making easily the most important start of his big league career, Gray was brilliant against the Tigers in Game 2 of the ALDS. Oakland's young right-hander went punch-for-punch with former MVP and CY Young Award winner Justin Verlander—which says a lot considering Verlander struck out 11 batters over seven scoreless innings in the game. Gray, meanwhile, fired eight scoreless frames while scattering four hits and registering nine strikeouts.

While his final line was undeniably great, Gray didn’t exactly coast through the outing.

In the fifth inning, he issued a leadoff walk to Omar Infante, who then advanced to second base on a Don Kelly groundout. The next batter, Jose Iglesias, followed with an infield single on an 0-2 curveball to put runners on the corners with one out.

Gray began the next at-bat with three consecutive balls to leadoff man Austin Jackson, and it appeared as though the right-hander may have been falling apart. However, after working the count full, Gray picked up a much-needed strike-‘em-out-throw-‘em-out double play with the help of catcher—and eventual Game 2 hero—Stephen Vogt.

via Nanda Sodre

Beyond that, the 23-year-old was nearly flawless, pounding the strike zone with 65 of 111 pitches while amassing more groundouts (10) than strikeouts (nine). Gray’s veteran-like poise and resiliency was also on display in the outing, as he executed a specific game plan without ever truly appearing rattled on the mound.

In terms of stuff, Gray was throwing a few ticks harder than usual in Game 2, which was somewhat expected given the adrenaline associated with such a high-pressure contest. According to Brooks Baseball, the right-hander’s four-seam fastball averaged 95 miles per hour and scraped 96-97 on multiple occasions.

While the fastball was nice, it was Gray’s curveball in Game 2 that left viewers in awe. For me, watching him baffle Detroit’s hitters with the pitch for eight innings was fantastic. Following the game, colleague Zach Rymer also expressed his love of Gray’s breaking ball, but did so with more numbers:

Gray’s curve has more lateral movement than most curveballs. Brooks Baseball has its average horizontal break down at 8.49 inches. Among right-handers in 2013, that amount of movement was good enough to place Gray fifth from the top.

It's good enough that Gray's curveball was one of the biggest breakers horizontally during the regular season, but only he and Jose Fernandez averaged 80 miles per hour or better with their hooks. It's not too soon to say that Gray has one of the best curveballs in the game.

And on Saturday night, Gray's hook was even nastier than usual.

Gray broke out his Uncle Charlie 29 times against the Tigers and picked up whiffs on five of the 13 swings that were taken at it with a couple of called third strikes on the side.

The average velocity: 81.8 miles per hour. The average horizontal break: 9.30 inches. The curveball Gray was throwing on Saturday night was essentially a juiced-up version of the one he was throwing during the regular season.

In general, Gray’s effectiveness with his breaking ball was significantly aided by his ability to pound the lower portion of the strike zone.

via Brooks Baseball

Nine of the 29 curveballs thrown in the outing registered in the bottom third of the zone, while another 16 were plotted as non-strikes below the zone. And it’s not a coincidence that the only three balls put in play against the pitch were ground balls.

 

ALDS Game 5: What to Expect

Prior to Game 2, Leyland mentioned that his team’s unfamiliarity with Gray might work against it, via ASAP Sports:

The problem with Sonny Gray is that we don't know much about him, other than what we have seen on TV and it looks pretty darn good and what our scouts have told us and they've told us it's pretty darn good. A little anxious when you see somebody you haven't seen before. Really good stuff, really good competitor, hard with an excellent curveball. We'll just have to wait and see how it looks tomorrow night, live.

And you know what? He was on to something.

For a team that comparatively destroys secondary pitches, the Tigers' inability to recognize and make adjustments against Gray’s curveball was surprising.

Collectively, the Tigers were more productive against curveballs than any other team this year, registering a league-leading 18.4 wCB (runs above average against curveballs), according to FanGraphs. Furthermore, a majority of the Tigers’ projected starters for Game 5 posted impressive numbers against right-handed curveballs this season:

Detroit's Game 5 Starters vs. Right-Handed Curveballs (2013)
Player AVG ISO K BB
Austin Jackson 0.324 0.177 13 1
Torii Hunter 0.325 0.275 10 0
Miguel Cabrera 0.278 0.278 11 3
Prince Fielder 0.265 0.265 9 9
Victor Martinez 0.276 0.069 4 2
Jhonny Peralta 0.273 0.227 7 3
Alex Avila 0.077 0 7 0
Omar Infante 0.046 0 5 0
Jose Iglesias 0.292 0 4 0

Brooks Baseball

With the exception of Omar Infante, all of Detroit’s right-handed hitters were remarkably successful against same-side curveballs during the regular season. And as expected, the team’s 2-3-4 hitters, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, did most of the damage, posting respective ISO (isolated power) averages of .275, .278 and .265. So, based on sample size, Detroit’s offense should fare better against the pitch in Game 5 than it did in Game 2.

However, it’s yet to be seen whether Tigers hitters can apply the knowledge gained from their first look at Gray in Game 2 and, more importantly, make the necessary adjustments against him over the course of Thursday’s game.

Even Miguel Cabrera, baseball’s best hitter, acknowledged that Gray caught the Tigers off guard in Game 2, “At some point, yeah, I think we looked a little bit like we were guessing, because it was the first time we faced him,” he said. “The way he threw the ball, he wasn’t giving us a break to try to figure him out.”

Considering Gray threw a high percentage of strikes with his curveball in Game 2, it’ll be interesting to follow Detroit’s approach to the pitch on Thursday night. One would think that it’ll stay aggressive and take plenty of healthy cuts, but also force the right-hander to locate it within the strike zone early in the game. And after guessing for eight innings in their first look against Gray, employing a consistent approach could make a huge difference in Game 5.

However, Gray does have one secret weapon heading into the win-or-go-home contest: his changeup.

Even though he threw only 65 of them during the regular season with a 26.15-percent strike rate (per Brooks Baseball), the right-hander managed to hold opposing hitters to a paltry .182 batting average.

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It’s not as developed or dynamic of an offering such as his fastball or curveball, but Gray’s changeup is still at least an average major league offering and can play up a grade when he’s throwing it selectively in curveball counts.

If Gray can pound the strike zone with his fastball and curveball as he did in Game 2 while mixing in a few more changeups—even if only for show so as to keep hitters off balance—then the Tigers offense could be in for another long night. At the same time, if things suddenly go south for the young right-hander, expect him to be lifted hastily.

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