Trevor Bauer is seemingly a pipe dream and the team is not close to signing any other starting pitcher in the free agent market, so the offseason doesn’t seem to be going particularly well for the Yankees. Even Masahiro Tanaka is looking like a longshot to return these days, and that’s saying something considering that the Bombers need pitching and he spent the last seven seasons in the Bronx.
The Yankees are reportedly not willing to spend too much in payroll obligations next season, and that may complicate things if they want to field a highly competitive roster.
Perhaps the trade market is a bit friendlier than potential free agent negotiations. The Philadelphia Phillies are reportedly open to listening on offers for pitcher Zack Wheeler, for example. And the Cincinnati Reds, looking to shed some salary, are willing to discuss dealing an old friend of the Yankees: Sonny Gray.
Sonny Gray? Again? Well, yes. I know you probably think that he ‘crumbled’ in New York and that he ‘can’t handle the bright lights’ and everything associated with playing with the Yankees. I beg to differ.
First, let me tell you that his 2018 season wasn’t as bad as you think. Yes, he had an ERA close to 5.00 (it was 4.90) but his FIP (4.17), xFIP (4.10) and SIERA (4.28) were much more decent, albeit not elite by any means. In short, he wasn’t the sub-4.00 ERA pitcher he can be at his best, but he was far from a disaster. That season, he had the highest BABIP (.326) of his career, which also contributed with the ugly ERA.
Some bad luck and some differences in pitching philosophy with the 2018 Yankees did him in.
“They love sliders,” Gray told The Athletic last year after being traded to the Reds. “Sliders are a great pitch. The numbers say slider is a good pitch, but you might not realize how many s–tty counts you’re getting in while throwing all those sliders. They wanted me to be [Masahiro] Tanaka and I’m way different from him.
“I can’t command my slider that well. I want to throw my slider in the dirt with two strikes, and that’s about it. I don’t have that type of slider, like Tanaka’s slider. His slider, the catcher will catch it, and the batter will swing and miss. If I get a swing and miss, the catcher is blocking it in the dirt. When I try to throw sliders for a strike, I get around it and it’s just a s–tty spinning pitch. I don’t know how people throw sliders for strikes that are still tight, good pitches. I’m at 2-0 and I’m throwing a slider, and either I’m throwing a s–tty slider in the zone, or I’m yanking it into the dirt and it’s 3-0 and I’m screwed either way.”
Well, there you have it. You can side with Gray or you may think those are excuses. Either way, the reality is that the team and the pitcher weren’t on the same page, and it affected the latter’s results.
The hardest thing to explain about his 2018 line
To me, the hardest thing to explain was the home/road split, to be honest. In that 2018 season, he had a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium, and in the brief time he was on the roster in 2017, the number was 5.65. I refuse to adhere to the narrative that he ‘crumbled under pressure’, though. After all, 59.1 innings at home in 2018, and 28.2 in 2017 don’t represent the largest of samples.
There surely is something behind those splits, and perhaps only Gray, former pitching coach Larry Rothschild and manager Aaron Boone know more about it. Maybe they don’t even know! But I think that now that the problem has been diagnosed, solutions could be in place.
The Yankees now have more resources to help and guide Gray than what they had when he was in the team. This time, they have the right people and the technology to support their pitchers.
I firmly believe Sam Briend as the pitching director and Matt Blake as the pitching coach can come up with a plan to get the best out of Sonny Gray, one that plays to his strengths as a hurler. And, additionally, all the people involved would have Gray’s first stint with the Bombers as a blueprint, a manual about what not to do.
Gray was very effective in 2019 with Cincinnati (2.87 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 10.52 K/9, and 4.4 fWAR in 175.1 frames) and 2020 (3.70 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 11.57 K/9) and his contract is very reasonable, at $10 million each in 2021 and 2022 with a $12 million club option for 2023. I think he makes for a very enticing trade target for the Yankees.