Dear reader, I regret to inform you I may not have been entirely truthful with you. After Sonny Gray’s exemplary start Saturday night against the Baltimore Orioles, tossing 6.1 innings of shutout ball with seven strikeouts and 11 groundouts, I posted the following comment:
My deep love for Vlad Guerrero Jr. aside, I sat down to rewatch Gray’s start, since I was only able to follow along on At-Bat while at Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo. I’m not falling for Good Sonny again, I’ve been hurt too many times. However, I think there’s something real in what Gray did against Baltimore, that if repeated, could signal a change in the right-hander’s fortunes.
If Sun Tzu lived in 2018, he would probably paraphrase himself and declare that all pitching is based on deception. Pitchers need to keep hitters guessing to be successful, and for some that means using a difference in pitch velocity. Luis Severino is a great example of this, using a 99+ mph fastball to set up a changeup that’s harder than it looks, but appears far slower after a hitter gets a look at the fastball. For other pitchers, varying their delivery is the key to deception.
Johnny Cueto is the most famous of these pitchers, and Marcus Stroman has also made it a key facet of his game over the past couple of years. In both cases, varying delivery helps disguise a pitcher’s suboptimal fastball, and because of that, plays up excellent breaking pitches. Does that sound like any Yankee pitchers we know?
It was subtle on Saturday, but Gray trotted out a few different deliveries himself, and like Cueto and Stroman, it had the intended affect of hiding a fastball and aiding the breaking stuff. First, let’s look at his standard delivery, early in the game:
Kick, delivery, easy. Sonny’s always had really smooth mechanics, the product of the national pitching factory known as Vanderbilt University. As the game goes on, and runners reach - albeit rarely - Gray’s delivery changes somewhat. With a runner on second, he goes to a quick pitch. It’s not quite as quick as someone like Stroman, but the difference is there:
The focal point here is his leg kick. It’s much quicker, which forces his arms into their rotation earlier as well, meaning the ball is on the way to the plate faster. You can see how he falls off in his follow through; it’s much more violent, showing how much more energy went into this pitch than the above. The quick pitch serves two purposes, confusing the baserunner and making it more difficult to take a secondary lead, and giving the batter a different look. Modifying the delivery like this works well once you’re through an order a first time, forcing batters to re-evaluate the ongoing scouting report that’s at the heart of every ball game.
An inning later, Sonny modifies the delivery again:
This time, it’s the opposite of the quick pitch. Sonny hesitates ever so slightly at the top of his delivery, throwing off the timing of the batter. Following it immediately with a 94 mph fastball means the pitch comes in looking a lot harder, adding to the deception.
It’s true this start came against the Orioles, an offense that doesn’t really strike fear in most pitchers. It’s true that Sonny has tantalized us like this before; he’ll put up an impressive performance, earn another start, and the next thing you know he’s getting pulled in the fourth inning with the bases loaded and the Yankees down four. We have yet to see if continuing to disrupt the hitter’s timing with these kind of stutters in delivery will have a permanent affect, but for one night at least, it sure worked for Sonny Gray.