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Let’s be real about Sonny Gray

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No, Gray isn’t as bad as fans think he is.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Few players on the Yankees’ roster draw the ire of fans as much as Sonny Gray. The right-hander arrived in New York last summer and went from exciting addition to hate vessel in record time. He quickly developed a reputation for nibbling and being a five-and-fly pitcher. While these criticisms largely prove unwarranted, many still view him as a back-end starter and regret the trade entirely.

It’s time to shake up the way we think about Gray.

The 28-year-old presents an interesting opportunity to take a deep dive into what makes a starter valuable. In 14 games with the Yankees, Gray has pitched to a 4.25 ERA with a 4.50 FIP. Those numbers don’t jump off the page, but they become more palatable when one considers a league average pitcher owned a 4.36 ERA in 2017. Things get more interesting when one breaks down his numbers by seasons.

Sonny Gray’s Yankees Splits

Dates IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% HR/FB% ERA FIP
Dates IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% HR/FB% ERA FIP
2017 65.1 8.13 3.72 1.52 47.3% 16.9% 3.72 4.87
2018 13.0 10.38 4.85 0 60.50% 0 6.92 2.60

We have a ways to go before Gray’s 2018 stats stabilize, but these numbers tell a story. There’s a significant recency bias at work. The right-hander had a successful debut in pinstripes. That’s a fact. If the Yankees didn’t acquire Gray at the deadline, they probably wouldn’t have made their playoff push. The rotation was in desperate need of a boost last summer, and he provided one. His impressive pitching down the stretch tends to go unnoticed.

Peeling the layer back a little further also reveals reason for optimism. For example, batters own a .409 BABIP against Gray this season. That’s significantly higher than his career average of .279. Considering his hard contact rate is in line with career norms, it’s fair to consider this bad luck. That mark should regress to the mean as the season progresses.

As for his reputation as a nibbler, it’s warranted to a degree. Gray tries to avoid the strike zone. He has a career 44.9% strike rate. That’s the norm, and it served him well in Oakland. What has changed, however, is the amount of contact batters make on pitches out of the zone. Gray owns a 58.5 % O-Contact percentage. There’s a lot of soft-hit balls in there, easy outs.

So far in 2018, that number sits at 40.5%. Batters aren’t taking the bait. Instead of being converted into quick outs, those pitches turn into long counts. That means laborious innings and quick departures. It’s not entirely in his nature, but if Gray can get more aggressive with his strikes, he may see some improvements. For what it’s worth, he indicated that he’s open to this adjustment.

Even if that doesn’t sell fans on Gray’s potential, they still shouldn’t have buyer’s remorse. The Yankees made out like bandits in the deal. Those who don’t think so are prospect hugging. James Kaprielian has electric stuff but has pitched just 29.1 innings in his professional career. He’s 24 years old and has missed significant development time. The upside exists, but it’s just as likely he never contributes in a meaningful way.

Meanwhile, Dustin Fowler is hitting .250/.313/.273 for Triple-A Nashville. Jorge Mateo isn’t doing any better, either. He owns a .244/.311/.293 batting line. Sure, the Yankees’ farm system has thinned of late on the position player side, but that by no means should have prevented the Gray trade. Fowler and Mateo are fine prospects, but they are expendable.

I get that Gray’s starts have been frustrating of late. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad pitcher or that the trade was a mistake. He’s a young, cost-controlled starter who is far more likely to pitch towards the front of the rotation than the back. He has a long track record of success, and a few bad starts shouldn’t be cause to write him off completely.

Let’s be real for a minute. Any way you break it down, the Yankees got the best of this deal. The team picked up a pitcher with great upside while moving mostly spare parts. He may have stumbled of late, but he has pitched well in New York before. It’s only a matter of time before he bounces back and plays a key role in the rotation.