Throughout the month of February we’re going to be examining some of the top young arms throughout the league and which direction their stock may be pointing heading into the 2014 season. Pitchers without big league experience need not apply
Oakland Athletics starter Sonny Gray made quite an impression in his 60 inning debut in 2013. A brilliant regular season performance saw him finish with a 2.67 ERA that was perfectly backed up by his 2.70 FIP. The A’s, in true A’s fashion, handed the ball to Gray in games two and five of the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers. In game two, he outdueled Justin Verlander, lasting 8.0 shutout innings but being denied a postseason win that went to Grant Balfour when the A’s scored in the bottom of the ninth. The undersized 24 year old (he’s 5’11”) was excellent throughout, striking out 9 Tigers and allowed only 4 hits. An Omar Infante RBI and a two-run Miguel Cabrera dinger were his undoing in game 5, as he lasted five innings and took the loss when his teammates failed to muster a run against the Tigers’ ace.
Gray has only two pitches, really, but it’s hard to argue that he needs to improve when you look at the results. His fastball clocks in at about 93 MPH and usually receives roughly average scores on FanGraphs’ pitch values, but his bread-and-butter is his curveball, and hoo-boy is it ever something. The pitch is rated by those pitch values as the most valuable in the game amongst starters with 60+ innings, besting the curve of the runner-up, one Clayton Kershaw, by 0.79 runs per hundred pitches. The knee-buckling terror of this pitch came through in his results, as he generated an elite 15.31% whiff percentage on the pitch, and despite his average fastball he still had a 9.5% swinging strike rate overall, a full percent above average for a starter.
This isn’t meant to imply that his fastball is any slouch, in fact he backed up his excellent strikeout and walk rates (9.42 K/9, 2.81 BB/9) with a 52.9% ground-ball rate, tenth best amongst AL starters who threw as many or more innings than he did. Batters offered at Gray’s out of the zone pitches at a far-below average rate in 2013, and when they did swing they also made contact with a far-below average of them. Batters, overall, swung at very few of Gray’s offerings relative to average, and given his low walk rate they will not be able to afford to continue that behavior in 2014. Expect Batters to swing more often as they try to figure Gray out in 2014, and given his fantastic stuff, expect him to continue to strike a lot of them out. His elite curve portends an increase in his chase rate (swings at his pitches outside of the zone) and it’s always a good sign when a pitcher allows a below-average amount of contact on his pitches.
There’s little you could say more positively about a young pitcher’s chances for success than that he has an excellent strikeout rate and generates a ton of groundballs while pitching in front of an excellent defense in a spacious ballpark. Gray has every chance to be just as good in 2014 if he can keep it up over the full season, and A’s fans and front office personnel alike have got to be thrilled about that possibility. The A’s have shown a talent for finding talent, and Gray appears to be another in a long line of quietly excellent players to rise through their system. Expect very big things for the small-ish righty.