When the Yankees landed Sonny Gray at the 2017 trade deadline, it felt like the team cleared a major hurdle. For years the club searched for a young, controllable starting pitcher. Not only did they acquire an arm at a palatable price, but they picked up a former top-three finisher in the Cy Young Award. For his part, he pitched well down the stretch, posting a 3.72 ERA (4.87 FIP) over 65.1 innings.
The 2018 season, however, proved disastrous for Gray. He had a nightmare year from start to finish, with few bright spots. He struggled so badly that the team removed him from the rotation, and he didn’t even crack the playoff roster. At season’s end, Brian Cashman expressed the team’s desire to trade Gray.
2018 Statistics: 130.1 IP, 4.90 ERA, 4.17 FIP, 8.49 K/9, 3.94 BB/9, 0.97 HR/9, 1.50 WHIP
2019 Contract Status: Arbitration eligible, free agent after 2019
With the luxury of hindsight, Gray’s first start of the season contained a lot of warning signs. The right-hander allowed just one run and struck out eight batters, but he only lasted four innings. He also allowed seven hits and issued three walks. Gray occasionally dazzled, but he labored and proved highly inefficient. This problem would last all season long, only without the luck of his first appearance.
Over his next seven starts, Gray posted a 6.88 ERA with a 5.60 FIP. He issued far too many walks (5.56 BB/9) and looked increasingly homer prone (1.32 HR/9). It was a bad stretch, for sure, but many expected him to rebound.
Gray appeared to do just that across his next four outings. He pitched to a 2.45 ERA (3.20 FIP), complete with a pair of gems against the Royals and Blue Jays. The 28-year-old retired the first 12 batters he faced in Toronto on June 6th, and appeared far more aggressive on the mound.
“No thinking. No second-guessing,” he told Lindsey Adler of The Athletic after the start. “You just throw each pitch with conviction and I was able to do that tonight.”
The new-found bulldog mentality didn’t last long, however, as he pitched to a 6.75 ERA (4.49 FIP) in the following nine starts. That included the nadir of his Yankees career, a complete meltdown against the Orioles on August 1st. Baltimore’s lineup teed off for seven runs over 2.2 innings. Yankees fans took particular offense with the nervous smile Gray cracked as he departed the mound. The team pulled him from the rotation shortly thereafter.
After landing in the bullpen, Gray made just two spot starts for the Yankees. He pitched well during Players’ Weekend against the Orioles, and not so well against the Twins two weeks later. He was consigned to mop-up duty for most of his other outings.
What caused Gray to struggle so badly in 2018? A few possible culprits stand out. First, one could make the case that Gray didn’t adapt well to the Yankees’ anti-fastball pitching philosophy. It appears he shelved his fourseam fastball and sinker in favor of a curveball and slider.
Gray also experienced severe home-road splits. He pitched to a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium, but managed a 3.17 ERA outside of the Bronx. The stadium’s friendly confines did him no favors. There will be plenty of time to examine what went wrong in further detail, but these two factors combined with an aversion to the strike zone cover the basics.
As Cashman looks to move Gray, a number of fans will revisit the nightmare 2018 season. They will have buyer’s remorse and long for the prospects back. It’s hard to say that the Yankees should regret the trade, though. The deal made so much sense at the time. The process was correct, the results just didn’t play out in their favor.