clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Smash or Pass: Sonny Gray

He was one of the best pitchers in the AL this year, but was his performance repeatable?

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Minnesota Twins Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Who is he and where does he come from?

He’s long-time right-handed starting pitcher Sonny Gray. He comes from Minnesota by way of Cincinnati after a pit stop in New York via Oakland. He’s been a big leaguer for 11 years, which makes me feel incredibly old, and he’s been all over the league.

Is he any good?

He’s an AL Cy Young finalist. He won’t win the award, but anyone who’s being considered for the award put together a great season. Is he as good as his numbers from 2023 suggest? I don’t think so. He finished the season with a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts, good for second in the American League, and third in the league overall.

Gray, like Jordan Montgomery, isn’t the modern-day flamethrower who’s going to strike out every batter he faces. For him, it’s all about the off-speed pitches. He has a curveball he can throw in the zone for a strike, a sweeper that generates tons of whiffs, and a changeup he mixes in against lefties. He also throws a four-seamer, sinker, and cutter. To me, that’s both a blessing and a curse.

Throughout his career, Gray has had ups and downs. When he struggles, having six pitches at his disposal can be helpful, because he can abandon a pitch he doesn’t have a feel for and still cover the entire plate. On the other hand, not having a consistent game plan will lead to some rough outings. Many pitchers will see their arsenal adjust year over year, whereas Gray will see it adjust month over month. Take a look at how his arsenal changed over 2023.

As you can see, he started the season with plenty of cutters, moved on to his sinker as his primary pitch, to the sweeper, all while the four-seamer was steadily gaining usage. It’s not a bad thing to give different looks throughout a season, but Gray goes through some significant swings that can make it hard to find consistency.

Having said all that, Gray made it work. He’s been in the league for eleven years, so if the approach works for him, who am I to be critical? Still, there are reasons to be skeptical of Gray’s 2023 season.

First, Gray’s home run per fly ball rate is minuscule at 5.2%. Of qualified pitchers, that’s the best mark in baseball. There are different schools of thought on the stat, but overall, it’s not something a pitcher has too much control over. The league average in 2023 was 12.7%; Gray’s 2023 rate is a major fluke and is likely to come back to earth in 2024. xFIP assumes a league average HR/FB%, Gray’s finished the year almost a full run over his ERA at 3.64. Again, Sonny Gray has a career 3.47 ERA in over 1,500 innings. He’s a very good pitcher, he just might not be as good as his 2023 suggests.

Tl;dr, just give me his 2023 stats.

32 Starts, 184.0 IP, 156 H, 55 BB, 183 SO, 2.79 ERA, 154 ERA+

Why would he be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?

The Red Sox don’t have a starting pitcher with a “kitchen sink approach” like Sonny Gray. As a hitter, at least at a high level, you know what you’re going to get with many of the starters. Brayan Bello is going to live down in the zone with sinkers and changeups. Kutter Crawford is going to keep his fastball up and his slider away. Chris Sale is going to throw high fastballs, sliders glove-side, and changeups arm-side. They don't have a pitcher with several breaking balls that can really keep hitters on their toes with different offerings. It’s hard to say how much that matters within a rotation throughout the season, but having different styles to keep hitters adjusting is a positive, especially in a playoff situation.

Why would he not be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?

Arguably his worst career season was with the New York Yankees. As a result, I’ve seen a narrative that he can’t handle a high-pressure environment like New York or Boston. He could have earned that reputation as a result of comments he made about the Yankees following his departure from the organization that may have come across as bitter. It also may be because the Yankees wanted him to pitch a certain way to match their own organizational philosophy even though it didn’t play to his strengths. Still, the stats show he’s struggled in Fenway and Yankee Stadium. Do I buy that he can’t handle the pressure of a major market? No. Would I fault you for making the argument? No.

What will he cost?

I’m going to keep deferring to other sources for these projections because using my own estimation skills won’t help anyone. The Athletic has Gray pegged for a three-year, $64MM deal. MLBTradeRumors landed on a four-year, $90MM deal. He’s 34 years old, it’s hard to imagine him getting anything more than four years. 20ish million dollars per year sounds about right to me. It’s not just the money though, the Twins did give Gray the qualifying offer, so any team signing him have would forfeit some draft capital.

Show me a cool highlight.

Here’s an eight-minute video of Sonny Gray striking dudes out. Watch it for two minutes, and you’ll know what I mean about the breaking balls being the secret to his success.

Smash or pass?

To me, Gray is in a similar tier of starter to Montgomery. Although he’s a Cy Young finalist this year, it’s hard to see him repeating that performance. Still, if he’s one of two or three starters the Red Sox add this offseason, I’m all in. Ideally, he wouldn’t be the best pitcher you add this offseason, but he’d make for a great number two or three. He gives the rotation something they don’t have, and there’s at least some value in that. At the same time, I don’t see the Red Sox signing any player who turned down a qualifying offer. Not because they won’t want to spend, but because Craig Breslow has emphasized building something sustainable and he might not want to start without a high pick in his first draft. He’d be a nice addition to the team, but he’s not a player that should be top of the wishlist.