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Does Sonny Gray have an AL East problem?

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Looking into the new Yankee’s performance against his new division

MLB: Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees
This 15-year-old might be the key to the Yankee postseason
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees made their biggest trade deadline splash in quite some time on Monday, landing right hander Sonny Gray from the Oakland A’s. The talented Gray is slated to make his first start in pinstripes on Thursday night, and the Yankees hope he’s a difference maker in the dogfight that the AL East has become.

The team is in a pretty good position for a playoff spot overall, but obviously avoiding a coin-flip wild card game is the preferred option. With 32 of the 55 games remaining in the 2017 season coming against AL East opponents, Sonny Gray’s most important task down the stretch might be neutralizing the potent division rivals in their bandboxes.

So how has Sonny done against the AL East for his career? In a word…not great. BaseballReference has a great statistic called tOPS+, which measures a player’s OPS+ for a particular split versus his career norms. A tOPS+ over 100 against left handed hitters means a pitcher has done worse against lefties than his overall career norm.

In 23 career starts against AL East opponents, Sonny Gray owns a 120 tOPS+, indicating he’s about 20% worse than his career averages when facing the Beasts of the East. In fairness, most pitchers are probably worse against the lineups within this division, but it could become a problem for Sonny as he begins this new chapter of his career.

When evaluating a pitcher, I like to look at the things a pitcher can control, that is, walks, home runs and strikeouts. Balls put in play are usually more impacted by a pitcher’s defense, and Gray has played with some pretty historically bad defensive teams. The problem is, analyzing the “controllables” against the AL East probably reveals the reasons behind Gray’s struggles.

Sonny tends to strike out more batters when facing the AL East, 8.04 K/9 compared to 7.74 K/9 in his career overall. That’s the good news. The bad news is, he also walks more, 3.07 BB/9 vs. 2.87 BB/9, and gives up more home runs, 1.11 HR/9 against 0.79 HR/9 overall. This might not be a unique problem for pitchers coming to the AL East, but it’s a concern either way.

There are some silver linings to this poor performance, and it starts with sample size. Sonny Gray has only thrown 137.2 innings in the AL East, out of his 705 career innings pitched. For a player with a career 115 ERA+, you’d expect to see this skewed performance normalize over more time. The second clue to future improvement is his 2017 performance against his new division. In 28.2 IP against the AL East in 2017, Gray is striking out 12.24 batters per 9 innings, while posting a better HR/9 rate (0.31) and a virtually identical walk rate to his career level against the AL East.

Now the same small sample caveat can apply to his 2017 performance, but it gains credibility when looked at in the context of his overall season. Sonny Gray isn’t just striking out more batters in the AL East, he’s striking out more batters in general. His K/9 is the highest rate it has been since his rookie season, indicating he has found a way to miss more bats overall. Further, he’s known as a groundball pitcher, and has induced the highest groundball rate of his career, critical in an era when batters are hitting more fly balls (and more home runs) than ever before.

The key to the Yankees’ playoff chances is their record in those 32 division games. If they win 20 of those games or more, it’s incredibly likely we’ll get a taste of New York postseason baseball. On first glance, it’d be appropriate to have some concerns about Sonny’s work in the AL East. A deeper dive shows that Yankee fans should be more optimistic that the best of Gray is yet to come, especially within the division.