Sonny Gray says Yankees forced him to throw more sliders

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Reds starter Sonny Gray had a disastrous 2018 campaign, finishing with a 4.90 ERA across 23 starts and seven relief appearances for the Yankees. Perhaps the most obvious change-of-scenery candidate, the Yankees traded Gray to the Reds in January.

Gray spoke to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris, saying that the Yankees forced him to throw more sliders. “They love sliders. Sliders are a great pitch. The numbers say slider is a good pitch, but you might not realize how many [bad] counts you’re getting in while throwing all those sliders. They wanted me to be [Masahiro] Tanaka and I’m way different from him,” Gray explained.

Gray added, “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.”

Brooks Baseball doesn’t actually show that Gray threw many more sliders, nor that hitters performed markedly better against them.

  • 2014: 10.75% of pitches, .140 average, .215 slugging
  • 2015: 16.7%, .128, .250
  • 2016: 11.2%, .177, .412
  • 2017: 15.3%, .137, .209
  • 2018: 15.9%, .198, .341

Based on the way Gray spoke, we would expect 2018 to show outliers across the board with his sliders, but we don’t. Hitters certainly hit for a higher average and slugged better, but it was still better than his 2016 performance when he was with the Athletics.

It is worth noting that there may be a difference in pitch classification between what Gray actually threw, or thinks he threw, and what Brooks Baseball says he threw.

While we didn’t see a marked increase in two-ball sliders, we did see a noticeable jump, percentage-wise in three-ball sliders.

  • 2014: 55/518 sliders (10.6%) in two-ball counts; 22/270 (8.1%) sliders in three-ball counts
  • 2015: 98/493 (19.9%); 20/221 (9.0%)
  • 2016: 44/316 (13.9%); 12/169 (7.1%)
  • 2017: 93/484 (19.2%); 15/250 (6.0%)
  • 2018: 73/408 (17.9%); 25/189 (13.2%)

That being said, we only saw gray throw 10 more three-ball sliders in total than he did in 2017, and only five more than he did in 2015.

Gray mentioned that throwing more sliders affected the quality of his curve. He said, “I didn’t throw as many curveballs, and that’s when it started to morph and lose shape.”

According to Brooks Baseball, Gray threw more curves in 2018 than he did in 2015, ’16, and ’17. Curves accounted for 23.7 percent of pitches last year, 14.5 percent in 2017, 16.4 percent in 2016, and 16.7 percent in 2015. Curves were 27 percent of his pitches in 2014.

Brooks Baseball doesn’t even see much of a difference movement-wise. In terms of horizontal movement (in inches), Gray’s curve was between 8.37 and 9.25 before 2018. Last year, it was 9.44 inches. The difference amounts to centimeters. In terms of vertical movement, accounting for gravity, Gray’s curve again was not much different. He averaged 46.9 inches of vertical movement. In 2015, he averaged 45 inches. 46.3 inches in 2016. 48.2 inches in 2017.

It is reasonable, actually, to conclude that Gray might have been done in by the Yankees’ hitter-friendly ballpark. Gray held the opposition to a .614 OPS in 15 games (296 plate appearances) on the road but yielded a .932 OPS in 15 games (286 PA) at home. Gray has never had home/away splits like that.

  • 2014: .683 OPS allowed at home, .564 OPS allowed on the road (.119 difference)
  • 2015: .583/.597 (-.014 difference)
  • 2016: .814/.824 (-.010 difference)
  • 2017: .644/.697 (-.053 difference)
  • 2018: .932/.614 (.318 difference)

The big difference was power. Gray gave up 11 of his 14 home runs at home. He also had a pitiful 45/35 K/BB ratio at home compared to 78/22 on the road. Perhaps the dimensions of the stadium or the pressure of pitching in New York got to him. It may be more mentally satisfying to blame his forgettable 2018 on pitch selection rather than a mental block at home. If that’s what Gray needs to move forward, then all the more power to him. Believe what you need to believe to get back on track. The data shows, however, that pitch selection doesn’t explain why he performed so poorly last year.

La Russa steps down as White Sox manager over heart issue

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CHICAGO — Tony La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox on Monday because of a heart issue, ending a disappointing two-year run in the same spot where the Hall of Famer got his first job as a big league skipper.

La Russa, a three-time World Series champion who turns 78 on Tuesday, missed the final 34 games with the underachieving White Sox. He left the team on Aug. 30 and doctors ultimately told him to stay out of the dugout.

La Russa has a pacemaker implanted in February and doctors later found another heart problem that he has not detailed.

“It has become obvious that the length of the treatment and recovery process for this second health issue makes it impossible for me to be the White Sox manager in 2023,” he said in a statement. “The timing of this announcement now enables the front office to include filling the manager position with their other offseason priorities.”

Chicago began the season with World Series aspirations but was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play. It was 79-80 heading into Monday night’s game against Minnesota.

“Our team’s record this season is the final reality. It is an unacceptable disappointment. There were some pluses, but too many minuses,” La Russa said. “I was hired to provide positive, difference-making leadership and support. Our record is proof. I did not do my job.”

Bench coach Miguel Cairo took over after La Russa stepped away. The White Sox showed a spark right after the change, winning 10 of 14. But they dropped eight straight in late September, dashing their playoff hopes.

La Russa, who is close friends with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was a surprise hire in October 2020, and he directed the team to the AL Central title last year.

But the White Sox sputtered throughout much of 2022, and there were chants of “Fire Tony! Fire Tony!” at Guaranteed Rate Field.

“At no time have I been disappointed or upset with White Sox fans, including those who at times chanted `Fire Tony,”‘ La Russa said. “They come to games with passion for our team and a strong desire to win. Loud and excited when we win, they rightly are upset when we play poorly.”

All-Star shortstop Tim Anderson and sluggers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert missed significant time because of injuries. Catcher Yasmani Grandal and third baseman Yoan Moncada also had health issues, and they underperformed when they were on the field.

There were embarrassing breakdowns, too, like when the White Sox ran themselves into the first 8-5 triple play in major league history during a loss to Minnesota on July 4.

La Russa continued to be a lightning rod for fans who weren’t thrilled with his hiring in the first place. His lineups came under question as did his decisions in games.

Some fans chanted for La Russa’s dismissal following a strange call for an intentional walk to to the Dodgers’ Trea Turner despite a 1-2 count on June 9. Bennett Sousa had just bounced an 0-2 slider, allowing the runner to advance from first to second.

With the base open, La Russa chose to walk Turner even though there were two strikes. It backfired when Max Muncy smacked a three-run homer, propelling Los Angeles to an 11-9 victory.

Another moment that raised eyebrows happened early in the 2021 season.

During a 1-0 loss to Cincinnati, La Russa was unaware of a rule that would have allowed him to use Jose Abreu as the automatic runner at second base rather than closer Liam Hendriks in the 10th inning.

With a 2,900-2,514 record over 35 years with Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis, La Russa trails only Connie Mack on baseball’s career wins list. He moved past John McGraw last season.

But there were big questions about whether La Russa was the right person for the job when the White Sox hired him to replace Rick Renteria. He hadn’t filled out a lineup card since 2011, when St. Louis beat Texas in the World Series. There were doubts about how someone known more for his scowl than smile would mesh with a fun-loving team that had just delivered the White Sox’s first playoff appearance since 2008.

Then, shortly after his hiring, news surfaced of an arrest on misdemeanor DUI charges.

La Russa blew out a tire on the Lexus he was driving in a collision with a curb that February in Arizona, after going to dinner with friends. The case was filed on Oct. 28, one day before the White Sox announced La Russa’s hiring.

He ended up pleading guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving and was sentenced to one day of home detention, a fine of nearly $1,400 and 20 hours of community service.

La Russa also pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in Florida in 2007 after police found him asleep and smelling of alcohol inside his running sport-utility vehicle at a stoplight.

La Russa captured championships with Oakland in 1989 and the Cardinals in 2006 and 2011. The former big league infielder and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to win the World Series in the American and National leagues.

He got his first major league managing job at age 34 when the White Sox promoted him from Triple-A to replace the fired Don Kessinger during the 1979 season. He took over that August and led them to a 522-510 record over parts of eight seasons.

The 1983 team won 99 games on the way to the AL West championship – Chicago’s first playoff appearance since the 1959 Go-Go White Sox won the pennant. But La Russa was fired in 1986 by then-general manager Ken Harrelson after the White Sox got off to a 26-38 start, a move Reinsdorf long regretted.