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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.

Padres will try to lock up Fernando Tatís Jr. to a long term deal

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The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the Padres will try to get Fernando Tatís Jr. locked up in a long-term deal before the start of the 2020 season.

It’d be a wise move from the team’s perspective, of course. Tatís showed in 2019 that he’s the future of the franchise, hitting .317/.379/.590 with 22 homers and 16 stolen bases through 84 games while playing spectacular defense at short. He was a serious contender for the Rookie of the Year Award before going down to injury and still finished third despite playing just a tad over half a season.

That talent and promise means that, in all likelihood, Tatís stands to make massive money in arbitration and free agency once he gets there. If he gets there, that is. Because as we’ve seen so often in recent years, teams have been aggressive in their efforts to lock up young stars like Tatís, buying out their arbitration and at least a couple of their free agency years. These deals tend to be team-friendly, with multiple team options aimed at getting maximal value out of such players before they hit the open market. Of course, the players get much more up front money than they would in the three seasons in which teams can and do set their salaries unilaterally, usually at less than $1 million per year. It’s a standard now vs. later tradeoff, even if the value of the “now” is far less than the value of “later” and even if it pays these guys far less than they’re worth overall.

But that’s the system. And it’s one which will force Tatís to make a tough choice: either take a deal at a time when the team has most of the leverage or else turn down millions in hand now in order take a shot at many more millions later. In his case, he’ll have a rookie season with multiple injuries to think about too. Does that portend future injury issues? Could he, like some players who have been in his shoes before, end up damaged goods by the time he expected to get paid?

We’ll see how both he and the Padres calculate all of that between now and February, it seems.