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What did Sonny Gray do differently against the Astros?

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Sonny Gray had his best start of the year against the defending champs. What did he do differently?

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

April went great as a whole for the Yankees, but it didn’t go perfectly. Their championship chances don’t actually look any better, thanks to a stellar start by the Red Sox. On the individual player side of things, there were some concerning slumps, most notably by Giancarlo Stanton among the hitters, and Sonny Gray among the pitchers.

Stanton smashed two homers against the Astros two nights ago, and earlier this week Gray also showed signs of turning things around, putting forth his best start of the season. Gray traversed six innings in hostile territory against the defending champs, yielding two runs. He ended up saddled with the loss, but it was a clear step in the right direction. What did Gray do differently on Monday, and can he use this start as a stepping stone to better things?

The best place to start is simple velocity. Velocity is meaningful in the early going, and sudden drops in speed at the start of the season can be highly troubling. Thus, when Gray was sitting down at 91 or 92 mph in a start against the Blue Jays in mid-April, there was reason to be worried.

Against the Astros, Gray was back where needed to be in terms of velocity. He sat 93 or 94 mph on the gun with his four-seamer, which averaged 93.4 mph per Brooks Baseball overall on the start. It was just one outing, but Gray had his better heat back, and he did generate a chunk of swings and misses with it against the Houston bats.

Velocity isn’t everything, but every tick is still important, and Gray, at age-28, isn’t at a point where he should be losing significant chunks of power. On Monday, he was back where he where usually is with his heat, and that is a promising sign going forward that everything is at least okay physically for Gray.

Perhaps just as importantly, though, Gray appeared to have better command of his pitches. From Baseball Savant, here is a simple heatmap of all of Gray’s pitches through his first five starts:

In totality, Gray was just leaving a lot pitches in the middle of the plate. Gray’s overall heatmap versus the Astros was more promising:

In particular, Gray’s fastball command was poor in April. Here’s a heatmap of his fastball location from his first five starts compared to his fastball location on Monday:

Gray was leaving a ton fastballs middle-middle, and while he still left some there on Monday, there was a general move towards the up and outer parts of the zone, which may have helped him induce more whiffs with his heaters.

In general, Gray’s poor location probably hurt him in terms of batted ball results. He yielded an average exit velocity over 92 mph prior to his last start, well above the league average, per Statcast. On Monday that was down to 81 mph, with Gray generating much more weak contact when opposing hitters actually put the ball in play.

Throwing harder and with better command are the two broad, easy takeaways from Gray’s last start. If he stops going over the heart of the plate, and isn’t injured and/or throwing close to 90 mph with his fastball, Gray will obviously have a much easier time replicating his success from previous years.

However, Gray’s pitch mix should also be noted. The Yankees as a whole have made headlines with their extremely low fastball usage, as the team has skewed heavily towards breaking pitches. Gray has historically leaned on his four-seamer and two-seamer, even though he does have both a potent curveball and slider.

Sheryl Ring of FanGraphs wrote last week about how the Yankees’ general fastball strategy was perhaps a poor fit for Gray, and it’s worth noting that Gray threw his highest percentage of fastballs on the year against the Astros. Nearly two-thirds of his pitches against Houston were heaters, compared to a sub-50% rate from prior.

Throwing more fastballs isn’t necessarily a panacea: Gray’s slider and curveball generate plenty of whiffs, and generally have an impressive shape to them. They don’t profile as bad pitches. Yet Gray has always generated more whiffs and grounders with his fastballs than most, and it might not be a coincidence that he had success on Monday by throwing as many fastballs as he typically would have in prior seasons.

While it’s unclear if Gray should or should not follow along with the Yankees’ team strategy regarding pitch mix, it is clear that if he can continue throwing harder and with better location, he should be able to turn things around. That isn’t rocket science: more velocity and better command are obvious routes to success. But they are routes that Gray hasn’t followed much this season, and it was a welcome sight to see him start down that path for the first time this year.