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The Yankees need Sonny Gray to get ahead in the count

Gray has struggled with control this season, and the Yankees are suffering because of it.

Minnesota Twins v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It’s no secret that a major concern for the Yankees right now is the struggling Sonny Gray, who has been, well, bad to start the year. There has been a start or two where Gray overcomes a lack of command to strand a few baserunners and escape a short start with minimal damage, but overall, it has not been pretty.

A catching change proved to be little help. With Austin Romine behind the dish, Gray lasted just 4.2 innings, allowing three runs while walking a frustrating five batters to skyrocket his pitch count. Obviously, sacrificing Gary Sanchez’s bat to put Romine behind the plate for Gray isn’t a constructive solution, especially since Gray showed he was no better with a new battery mate. The problem lies with Gray himself, and the solution is simple: throw strikes and take command of at-bats early in the count.

This has been a major struggle for Gray so far this season. He just can’t seem to get ahead in the count. Much like Masahiro Tanaka, Gray needs to remain ahead of batter in order to set up his sinker down in the zone and get hitters to chase. When he’s behind in the count, there’s no incentive for batters to bite, and the walks pile up. So far this season, Gray has issued 16 free passes in just 21 innings. That is not a recipe for success.

The problem for Gray has been the fact that he isn’t giving himself a chance in many at-bats. He falls behind in counts way too quickly. For example, he’s fallen behind 2-0 on 17 batters so far this season, and walked nine of them. That computes to a BB/9 of over 120. His career BB/9 when behind 2-0 is 14.13. Even when he falls behind 1-0, it leads to trouble. His BB/9 drops to 14.04, but that’s compared to a career mark of 5.96. Gray simply isn’t battling back in counts like he’s used to.

One reason for this alarming trend could be Gray’s lack of fastball command, or perhaps hitters are picking up on his fastball. Gray usually gets 42.5 percent of hitters to swing at his fastballs. This year, that number has sunk to 33 percent. That’s likely because almost half of his fastballs this year are out of the zone (43 percent, up six percent from his career average). Gray has always relied on the sinker for strikeouts and ground balls, but that sinker has to be set up with a fastball, which he doesn’t have working for him right now.

Of course, hitters have not been bailing Gray out this season. They are daring him to throw strikes, and Gray has not answered the challenge. Take a look at swings out of the zone against Gray this season, especially when compared to last season:

The 2016 season had its share of injuries for Gray, so let’s focus on 2017 to the present day. Swings out of the zone have plummeted this season, which in turn has sent his walk rates through the roof. Gray was a big part of the Yankees’ run to a postseason spot last year, because he was getting hitters to chase. It’s difficult to get hitters to chase when you’re constantly behind in the count, which Gray is finding out the hard way through his first few starts in 2018.

Gray has work to do, but by no means is he lost. The velocity is still there. The command just needs to return. Hopefully for the Yankees, Gray rediscovers the strike zone sooner rather than later.