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Did the Yankees ruin Sonny Gray with their fastball strategy?

The common perception is that the Yankees messed with Gray’s fastball usage, but that narrative doesn’t line up with reality.

Detroit Tigers v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Sonny Gray’s disastrous 2018 season will long be etched in our minds. A much-ballyhooed trade acquisition midseason in 2017, Gray was banished from the starting rotation within a calendar year. Now, Brian Cashman is talking about dealing Gray to a better situation in a remarkably open fashion. The descent for Gray has been both swift and public.

The most commonly given reasons for Gray’s struggles as a Yankee have been twofold: Gray can’t cut it in New York, and the Yankees ruined Gray by imposing their pitching philosophy on him. I won’t delve into the efficacy of the first narrative, but I do think it is worth pushing back on the idea that the Yankees’ pitching strategy is what caused Gray to regress in 2018.

If you haven’t heard, the Yankees don’t use fastballs all that much, despite their proclivity for throwing them really, really hard. In 2018, the Yankees ranked first in fastball velocity, and last in fastball rate. They did the same in 2017. And in 2016. The Yankees have a clearly discernible strategy; don’t rely on the fastball too often, but when you do, throw it fast.

Throughout his career, Gray has been known as a pitcher with multiple fastballs that he likes to rely on. So, the narrative goes, the Yankees took Gray, made him get away from doing what he wants (e.g. throwing fastballs most of the time), and Gray turned into a pumpkin. That’s not quite what happened.

Gray throws three distinct fastballs. He has a four-seamer with good velocity, just below 94 mph. He has a sinker that sits close to 93 mph. He also has a cutter that moves in on the hands of lefties, though he has rarely used it. With the Athletics, Gray used that trio of pitches 61% of the time, according to Brooks Baseball. After being traded from Oakland to New York? That rate barely budged, falling just to 60%.

The idea that Gray became a radically different pitcher in terms of fastball usage after coming over from the A’s simply isn’t true. Gray used his hard pitches frequently as an Athletic, and he did so with the Yankees as well. A totally different repertoire is not to be blamed for his struggles.

You could quibble a bit with lumping all fastballs together here, as Gray did increase his usage of his sinker with the Yankees, while dropping his usage of his four-seamer. Yet that too is probably not the root of his problems in New York. According to Statcast, Gray has allowed a lower wOBA to opposing hitters with his sinker than his four-seamer every season of his career except for 2016. If anything, the Yankees let Gray use his fastballs just as much as ever, while slightly fine-tuning his fastball usage into a more optimal shape.

No, decreased fastball use isn’t what torpedoed Gray. Pitching poorly is what torpedoed Gray. His zone rate hit a career-low this year, and his chase rate decreased, per FanGraphs. That led to fewer swings and misses and more walks, with his walk rate hitting a career high. Overall, opposing hitters posted a .339 wOBA, a spike from the .290 mark he allowed in 2017.

What’s notable about Gray’s fastball is the extent to which it was tattooed. According to Statcast, hitters batted .339 with a .554 slugging in at-bats that ended with Gray’s four-seamer. Conversely, they slugged below .350 against both Gray’s slider and his curveball. Maybe the Yankees actually should have had Gray throw fewer fastballs!

Regardless of how the Yankees should have handled Gray in retrospect, his time in the Bronx is all but over. Just don’t blame that poor season all on a sudden decrease in fastball usage. While the Yankees may have tinkered a bit with how much Gray used his four-seamer, Gray still used hard pitches at virtually the same exact rate that he did in the past. Gray’s poor results likely have far more to do with poor execution and luck than they do with an arsenal that’s been messed with.