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Sonny Gray’s four-seam fastball is the key to success or failure

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Gray is relying more on his four-seam fastball. The results aren’t so encouraging.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

After a horrendous start to the season, Sonny Gray had something of a mini-renaissance. Against the Astros on April 30, Gray pitched six innings and gave up only two runs on four hits. Gray also hurled six innings of two-run ball in his next start, which came against Cleveland on May 5. I hoped that this would become a trend. Alas, it did not. In his last start against his old team, the Oakland A’s, Gray gave up five runs on nine hits (including two dingers) in five innings of work, walking more batters (three) than he struck out (two).

What’s happening with Gray? The evidence points to a pitcher who’s lost his way. One of the main storylines with Gray was how he changed his pitching style from a fastball-heavy approach to a breaking ball-led attack plan upon joining the Yankees. Though Gray had an above-average ERA with the Yankees last year down the stretch, his FIP ballooned to an unsightly 4.87 mark. This, combined with his terrible start to 2018, led some to wonder whether the Yankees’ no-fastball pitching philosophy was breaking Gray.

Then, during his mini-renaissance against Houston and Cleveland, Gray brought back the fastball, throwing his four-seamer more than he ever did since coming over to the Yankees.

Sonny Gray pitch usage, 2007 - 2018

Notice how the black line at the top goes almost straight up at the right end, after hovering around 30 percent for all of 2017 to the start of 2018? That's how much Gray's four-seam fastball usage increased over his last two starts. This isn't just random fluctuation, either; the last time Gray threw four-seamers this often was in 2013, when he made his major-league debut. Gray made a conscious effort to throw more fastballs, especially when he was behind in the count, and the results were there.

However, the improvement didn’t last. When Gray threw his four-seamer in his last start against the A’s, it got absolutely hammered more often than not. The pitch Khris Davis teed off in the 2nd inning? 3-1 four-seamer. Matt Chapman’s homer? 0-2 four-seamer. Mark Canha’s leadoff double in the 4th? First-pitch four-seam. Turns out that reverting to his old fastball-reliant approach wasn’t the answer for Gray. Now the question is, what is?

The key for Gray, as Jake touched on in an earlier article, seems to be control and location. This is true regardless of whether he wants to lead with his breaking balls or establish his fastball first. If Gray wants to get hitters out, he needs to start throwing more first-pitch strikes. When he can’t do that, he needs to excecute his pitches in hitter-friendly counts, either by throwing his curveball for strikes or living on the edges with his fastball.

As a pitcher with great breaking stuff, Gray has no shortage of options to get strike three. But when Gray doesn’t have his control or command, it gets awful hard for him to get strikes one and two. If Gray wants to improve, he’s going to have to locate his pitches with way more precision, no matter how often he wants to throw his fastball.