What makes the Yankees an especially potent playoff team is not only how stacked their bullpen is, but also how deep the rotation is. Consider the fact that the Astros themselves can only rely on Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, but you can be certain Joe Girardi trusts Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and CC Sabathia.
The odd man out just so happened to be Sonny Gray, a pitcher who was acquired at the trade deadline as a bona fide “ace,” someone who would be a Game One starter for almost any other team. Instead they skipped his turn after a lackluster start in Game One of the ALDS, and he sat for 12 days.
The question of course was whether such a long layover would affect him. Go to find out, it really didn’t. He didn’t give the Yankees length, but he gave them a chance, and a lot can be said for that. He pitched five-plus innings, allowing just two walks, one hit, and most importantly, just one earned run.
There was a very interesting stat in the wake of his start, one that truly evidences his effectiveness:
Sonny Gray's 80.1 MPH avg exit velocity tonight was his 3rd-lowest in a start this year (lowest as a Yankee)— James Smyth (@JamesSmyth621) October 18, 2017
Gray doesn’t make his money on strikeouts. He only averages about eight strikeouts per nine, which is unusual for this era. That said, he has to make sure he keeps balls on the ground and induces weak contact; that’s why he has an over 50% groundball rate throughout his career. On the negative side, it also means he allows more home runs than average.
Since Gray didn’t make many mistakes, and his credited runs came after he left the game, there were a couple of moments that solidified how good he was. In the top of the first, he threw a curve right on the corner that got a ground ball to end the inning:
The biggest pitch of his start came during the third inning. After hitting Brian McCann, he faced Josh Reddick with one out, and gave him a change with a 1-1 count:
On both that pitch and the previous ground out to George Springer, he served them both pitches up, a fastball and a change, but the downward sinking action forces them to roll over on the pitch.
Finally, there’s the fourth inning. That’s when Correa reached courtesy of a Starlin Castro error; he then advanced to second on a wild pitch. Gray faced a runner on second with one out. He strikes out Yuli Gurriel for the second out, which brings up the dangerous Alex Bregman. Gray gets him on yet another pitch up in the zone—this time he gets a fly out:
It’s just off the plate, and because the Astros were expanding the zone, the slight cutting action forces Bregman to get underneath it to pop out.
I sound like a broken record, but it’s true: Playoff series can really expose the strengths and weaknesses of a club. The Astros are an incredible offensive club, so being able to shut them down only exposes the strength of the Yankees’ pitching. Gray is their fourth starter in line, and he was acquired as their second. When he’s locating his pitches, pop ups and ground outs are abound. If the Yankees do make it to the World Series, that could be an important story line next week.