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What Sonny Gray did better than Justin Verlander

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The Yankees right-hander outperformed Verlander in one interesting area.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Sonny Gray and Justin Verlander are inextricably linked in baseball history. In Game Two of the 2013 ALDS, a rookie Gray outdueled the Tigers ace. He hurled eight innings of scoreless ball, striking out nine along the way. Verlander traded blanks with Gray, making it a classic pitchers’ duel before he bowed out after the seventh inning, and the Tigers ultimately took the loss.

The pair met once again in the postseason four years later, this time sporting different uniforms. The Yankees acquired Gray at the non-waiver trade deadline, while the Astros landed Verlander with minutes to spare on August 31st. Although they didn’t start opposite each other, their presence in the ALCS drove home each team’s decision to bolster its rotation.

In the aftermath of the Yankees’ postseason departure, a vocal contingent of fans and observers questioned the team’s decision to pursue Gray. In a case of revisionist history, a number of comments and stories appeared noting that Brian Cashman should have traded for Verlander instead. Recency bias almost certainly drove this line of thinking, but it deserves some further probing.

Is it true that the Yankees made the wrong deadline move? Or could there be an area where Gray outperformed Verlander? To gain an understanding of how their season unfolded, a rate-by-rate comparison proves helpful.

Sonny Gray vs. Justin Verlander 2017

Player IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% HR/FB% ERA FIP
Player IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% HR/FB% ERA FIP
Sonny Gray 162.1 8.48 3.16 1.05 52.8% 15.1% 3.55 3.90
Justin Verlander 206 9.57 3.15 1.18 33.5% 11.5% 3.36 3.84

Upon a closer examination, Gray and Verlander had a remarkably similar season. The most significant departure in the numbers comes in the form of groundball percentage. In that department, Gray takes a handy victory. That, however, can be explained in terms of pitching style. Verlander overpowers batters, whereas Gray is more comfortable pitching to contact. A deeper dive into their arsenals is necessary to make any judgements.

When it comes to repertoires, both heavily employed their fastballs in 2017. Verlander hammered batters with a fourseamer 58.8% of the time. Gray threw a variation of his three fastballs at a 64.54% clip. This pitch isn’t the best unit of analysis, though. Like the groundball rates, their fastball usage is predicated upon entirely different pitching approaches. Verlander, for example, elevated his heater to generate swings and misses.

Credit: Brooks Baseball

Gray, on the other hand, lived at the bottom of the zone.

Digging into the secondary pitches provides a better point of comparison. Both pitchers leaned heavily on their sliders. It represented their go-to breaking pitch. Since a slider has one essential purpose — to generate whiffs — this works nicely as a focal point. Considering how much fanfare surrounded Verlander’s slider last season, the pitch breakdown proves surprising.

Gray vs. Verlander Sliders

Player Usage Velocity V Movement H Movement Whiff% Strike% Groundball% wSL/C
Player Usage Velocity V Movement H Movement Whiff% Strike% Groundball% wSL/C
Sonny Gray 15.27% 85.48 -2.7 4.42 22.05% 27.05% 8.18% 1.06
Justin Verlander 22.07% 88.48 3.55 0.56 18.51% 28.76% 6.80% -0.03

In almost every respect, Gray worked with a superior slider. By wSL/C, a metric that assigns value to a slider on a 100 pitch sample, this is abundantly clear. The other numbers back this up. The Yankees right-hander generated a higher whiff percentage, plus his slider behaved like the textbook examples. His had far more movement than Verlander’s, meaning it was tough to put a barrel on it. The eye test backs this up.

Not only does Gray’s pitch drop out of the zone, it runs far away from the hitter. In this instance, the batter sees a ball coming up and inside and starts to swing. The slider, however, spins down and over the plate. It’s the quintessential out pitch.

Verlander, on the other hand, works with a much tighter slider. In fact, it’s possible that a few of his have been mistaken for cutters. There’s not a whole lot of separation from his fastball in terms of velocity, and the pitch doesn’t move hardly as much as Gray’s.

There’s a slight break to his slider, but one would expect more to make the pitch effective. His is a nice complimentary offering, but not a top put-away piece.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that Gray is a superior pitcher to Verlander. Both are, for all intents and purposes, elite arms. It does help to dispel some of the myth built up around Verlander following the ALCS though. He used his slider to shut down the Yankees on two separate occasions. Despite that, it turns out Gray has the better pitch of the two.

The Yankees traded for Gray based on a number of variables. He represented the young, cost-controlled starter Cashman has hunted for years. Verlander turned in a postseason for the ages, but he’s also 34 years old and the owner of a burdensome contract. It didn’t work out last October, but that’s no reason to lose confidence in Gray. The front office made the right call in trading for him.