There's a Gray horse in the 2014 American League Cy Young race. Either that, or the dark horse in the race is Sonny.
Whatever. You get it. Puns for young Oakland A's right-hander Sonny Gray, who is very much in the AL Cy Young discussion with a 5-1 record and a 2.10 ERA through his first nine starts.
That ERA ranks second in the AL behind reigning winner Max Scherzer, which is a good look. Also a good look is how Gray is surrounded on that leaderboard by heavyweights like Mark Buehrle, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish. Gray looks slightly out of place in their company, but, hey, there he is.
But this is where I flip my honesty switch and tell you about my trust issues with Gray's ERA.
Those who read my recent Fact-or-Fiction piece on 2014 breakouts will know that my skepticism is borrowed from the skepticism of three advanced metrics: Fielding Independent Pitching, Expected Fielding Independent Pitching and Skill-Interactive ERA.
You can read more about FIP, xFIP and SIERA at FanGraphs, but the short version is that they estimate what a pitcher's ERA should be based on things within his control. In Gray's case, they agree that his ERA should be more than a run higher than it is:
|ERA||Pitcher performance, defense, luck, etc.||2.10|
|FIP||Strikeouts, walks, hit-by-pitches, home runs||3.36|
|xFIP||Same as FIP, except it normalizes a pitcher's home run rate||3.41|
|SIERA||Strikeout rate, walk rate and ground-ball rate||3.51|
What I'm supposed to say now is that Gray is doomed to regress and fall out of the AL Cy Young race. But instead, I'm going to be fair and say there's a chance.
Well, two chances, actually. Gray can get to the Cy Young via Door No. 1 by continuing the beat the metrics, or via Door No. 2 by appeasing the metrics.
For him, either way is possible.
Door No. 1: How Gray Might Keep Beating the Metrics
If a pitcher's not going to excel at getting strikeouts and limiting walks, being good at getting ground balls is the next-best thing.
And that's one thing about Gray: He's quite good at getting grounders.
That Gray is good at getting ground balls is only half the story, however. The other half is that he's freakishly good at turning grounders into outs.
Luck should be the explanation for that. I'm certain it is to some extent. But there's also the fact that Gray plays for the A's.
That's important because turning ground balls into outs is something the A's as a whole are very good at. According to Baseball-Reference.com, they're holding hitters to a .184 average on grounders. That's on pace to be easily the lowest rate of the Age of the Pitcher (2010 to now).
Is that .184 average unsustainably low? Probably, yeah. But at the same time, we must acknowledge the possibility that it won't rise too much.
At the least, the A's have two quality defensive infielders in Josh Donaldson and Eric Sogard. And while there's no publicly available data for us to turn to, we know the A's use shifts. Possibly better than everyone else uses them. None of us would be surprised if that's the case, anyway. Being ahead of the curve is Oakland's thing.
In short: Maybe it's not nuts to think that Gray can end the season allowing a sub-.200 average on ground balls. And for what it's worth, it's something we know can be done. Between 2010 and 2013 alone, 36 pitchers made at least 30 starts and held hitters below .200 on grounders.
Joining their company would certainly help Gray keep his ERA below where the metrics say it belongs. What would also help, however, is if he keeps doing another thing he's been good at in 2014:
Leaving runners on base.
According to FanGraphs, 83.9 percent of the runners Gray has put on base this year have been left on base. That's the fourth-best mark among qualified American League starters.
That suggests that Gray's either really lucky with men on base, or that he uses nerves of steel to turn himself into a legitimately better pitcher with men on base.
Gray's splits say he can do the latter:
|Men on Base||22.6||8.5||59.4||2.54||3.24|
|Men In Scoring Position||24.1||6.9||61.5||2.24||2.91|
Note: K% and BB% are strikeouts and walks per plate appearance.
With men on and with men in scoring position, Gray becomes better at striking guys out, limiting walks and getting ground balls.
That doesn't look like good luck to me. That looks like a skill. Heck, even FIP and xFIP have no choice but to say, "Dude, nice!"
Between this habit and the good fortune Gray's been enjoying on grounders, I daresay we've located the two biggest reasons his ERA is outperforming the advanced metrics. Not a bad way to go about doing so, I must say, and his ERA will be in Cy Young shape if he can keep it up.
But then there's the alternative route to Gray winning the Cy Young.
Door No. 2: How Gray Might Appease the Metrics
You'll recall how we pinpointed Gray's modest strikeout and walk rates as the big reason why the metrics are skeptical about his ERA. And though we just acknowledged he might manage a super-low ERA anyway, said ERA will be easier to achieve if he succeeds in upping his strikeouts and lowering his walks.
The easiest way for Gray to do this? Just get better at getting strike one.
This is yet another thing that he's not so great at doing. FanGraphs has Gray's first-pitch strike rate at 56.2 percent, which is below the average AL starter's rate of 59.5.
Which is a shame, because Gray is miles more lethal after 0-1 counts than he is after 1-0 counts:
Now, it's admittedly easy for me to sit here and tell Gray, "Thou shalt throw more first-pitch strikes." One possible solution, however, is one that he's already on his way to discovering.
Like most pitchers, Gray likes to start hitters off with heat. What's different in 2014 is that he's starting them off with sinkers much more often than he did in 2013, when Brooks Baseball says he threw four-seamers on 0-0 roughly 55 percent of the time.
Brooks Baseball says changing things up has been worth Gray's while:
|Pitch||Usage||Strike%||Swing%||Whiff/Swing%||Ball in Play%||AVG||SLUG|
Since it's been easily the more successful 0-0 pitch of the two, it looks to me like Gray evening the first-pitch balance between his four-seamer and sinker even further couldn't hurt.
If Gray does and the result is more frequent 0-1 counts, yippee. More frequent 0-1 counts could turn him into a strikeout and walk machine. That would please the metrics, and in turn keep him from regressing. Analysis: not regressing is good.
But there's another thing that could take Gray to an even higher level: His changeup somehow becoming an out pitch versus left-handed batters.
If you've been following Gray's development, this will sound familiar. The heat and the nasty curveball are there, but the changeup...Eh, not so much.
John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News noted in March how this is something the A's would like to see change:
The A's see the fastball and curve as Gray's two major weapons, but they would like to see the changeup come along as a third pitch, particularly if he could throw it to left-handed hitters in big situations.
Added A's manager Bob Melvin: "He'll need a third pitch, especially to left-handers."
Based on how he's used it against lefty batters, Gray's changeup hasn't reached this status just yet:
|Count||Usage||Strike%||Swing%||Whiff/Swing%||Ball in Play%||AVG||SLUG|
Gray has more trust in his changeup this year than he did in 2013, when he threw it just 11.3 percent of the time to lefties. But he clearly doesn't trust it as an out pitch just yet, perhaps because the two-strike changeups he has thrown to lefties haven't done much fooling.
Still, just because there hasn't been a breakthrough here yet doesn't mean there won't be one.
That Gray has been willing to use his changeup against left-handed batters more than he did in 2013 is a good first step. There's still plenty of season left for him to take the next step of turning his change into the extra out pitch that the A's want him to have.
He's an intriguing pitcher, this Sonny Gray. He might be just be good enough to keep scoffing at the metrics, and he also might just be good enough to start giving them what they want.
And in the end, he might just be good enough to make room on his mantel for a Cy Young.
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