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Is the Yankees defense hurting Sonny Gray?

The Yankees might need to adjust their defensive strategy when Sonny Gray is pitching.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Sonny Gray needs all the help he can get in 2018. His 4.98 ERA would be the worst of his career if it weren’t for his injury-marred 2016 campaign. The people meant to be helping Gray win baseball games might actually be the ones causing some of the problems.

The Yankees defense has not been inherently bad. In fact, you could actually make the case that they have been quite good. They are tied with the Astros for 6th in the majors in DRS, thanks largely in part to Brett Gardner and the outfielders.

Sonny Gray does a good job of keeping the outfielders out of the game for the most part though, since he leads the staff in GB%. You probably thought Masahiro Tanaka would hold that title with his great splitter/2 seam combination, but Gray’s 47.1 GB% has got him beat.

You’ve probably heard about CC Sabathia getting lots of soft contact too. While it’s true that Sabathia is consistently at the top of the opponent’s exit velocity leaderboards, Sonny Gray is no slouch in that regard. Gray’s average exit velo against so far in 2018 is 89.4 mph, just a tick above league average.

So Sonny Gray gets lots of ground balls, and not particularly hard-hit ones at that, but his season has been decidedly not great. What gives? It might have something to do with his .308 BABIP, the worst mark of his career other than his injury-shortened 2016.

Some of that can be chalked up to dumb luck. Does the team just happen to make more errors when Gray is pitching? Not quite. All of Gray’s 38 runs allowed in 2018 have been earned. So if it’s not bobbled balls, maybe it’s positioning.

Masahiro Tanaka leads the staff in shifts deployed while pitching, with a whopping 45.1% of PA occurring with a shift in the background. As we learned earlier though, Sonny Gray induces more ground balls than Tanaka. Gray is actually a full 10% behind Tanaka and then some at 32.2%.

This makes sense partly because against right-handed hitters, the defense only shifted in 9.4% of PA. That’s because right-handed hitters are more likely to hit the ball to the center part of the field than pull the ball against Gray. The disparity comes against left handed hitters. Lefties have very similar pull% (within 1%) against Gray and Tanaka. Yet the Yankees shift 83.6% of the time against lefties when Tanaka is pitching, and only 57.7% of the time when Gray is pitching.

Shifting is not some sort of band-aid that you can slap on a bad pitcher to make them good, but Sonny Gray is not a historically bad pitcher. The Yankees adjusting their shifting strategy could be a piece of the puzzle.