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The Yankees should support Sonny Gray as a two-pitch pitcher

Gray’s fallen back on a two-seamer and curveball, and it’s working.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Something struck me while watching Sonny Gray pitch Saturday against the Mets. It was a good start, especially compared to Gray’s overall 2018 campaign. He worked into the sixth inning, and although he was charged with two earned runs, he was everything the Yankees would want out of a starter. He struck out six against just one walk, gave up one run, and it wasn’t until the sixth that he appeared to have any trouble at all.

That start built off his success in the previous outing against Baltimore, where he went six innings without surrendering any runs, and posting eight strikeouts against just a single walk. With the kind of season Gray’s had, all progress is good progress. It’s worth diving into what’s different about him.

The biggest change, and one that’s easy to notice just by watching the games, is his pitch selection. While Gray sports a four-pitch mix, he’s really given up on anything besides his two-seamer and curve in the last two starts:

This comes from Saturday’s start against the Mets. The two-seam fastball and curveball make up 83% of Sonny’s pitches that day, and the Baltimore start saw the exact same breakdown:

Now contrast that against Sonny’s last bad start, on July 6 against Toronto:

The two-seamer and curve have been put on the backburner, dropping from 83% usage in the two good starts to just 29%.

Three starts isn’t a great sample size, though, and so it’s useful to look back at all the starts Gray has made for the past three months. Most of the starts can be sorted into three categories. First, there’s good, with less than three earned runs surrendered. Next, there’s bad, or more than four runs or a short outing, like 3.2 innings against the Angels. Finally, a single “neutral” start against Tampa, where Gray didn’t pitch as well as you like but he wasn’t a tire fire. One can see Gray’s pitch usage in all those starts, with the quality of the start indicated beside the date:

There’s only one good start since May 1st where Sonny has thrown more four-seam fastballs than two-seamers, and in all but one good start he’s also thrown the curveball as his main breaking ball. The four-seam and slider have been regulated to what’s essentially show-me pitches the last two starts.

Gray’s always been a guy with quality stuff who struggles to find consistency. He’s long been known as a tinkerer, a pitcher who tries to be too fine and ends up overthinking his performance. Maybe by reducing his repertoire to the two-seam and the curve, he’s been able to avoid overthinking and better replicate success?

The big problem with only throwing two pitches is the difficulty in navigating a lineup three full times. It’s usually the reason relief pitchers end up as bullpen arms; they can’t effectively command a third pitch. Gray is probably sacrificing some length by doubling down on only two pitches, but if it leads to giving up just two earned runs every 11 innings, I think the Yankees will find ways to live with it.