All of four days ago we explored how the Cincinnati Reds stacked up against the rest of their MLB peers in terms of pitch selection. In it, we looked specifically at how prolific the Reds have been in leaning on their fastball and avoiding throwing curves, in 2018 being the single least-curvey team in all of baseball.
The conclusion, though, was predictably murky in a chicken/egg way. Was leaning on fastballs 3/5ths of the time an organizational theory? Or, rather, was it just indicative of having woefully inexperienced pitchers on the mound in large part who simply hadn’t yet developed breaking balls - or weren’t precise enough to use them?
This all brings me to New York Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray, whose name has been in trade speculation for weeks now since GM Brian Cashman said publicly he would likely be traded this winter. The pitch mix stuff I’ll get to in a second, since what’s most pertinent at the moment is today’s news from MLB Network’s Jon Morosi that the Reds themselves have interest in Gray.
Gray, a fresh 29 years old, lost his spot in the New York rotation in 2018, ultimately making 23 starts (among 30 appearances) with a 4.90 ERA in 130.1 IP, his 2.16 K/BB a career worst. On top of that lackluster performance sits the fact that he’s only under team control for the 2019 season prior to being eligible for free agency, meaning he’s hardly a slam-dunk fit for a Reds team just now looking to ramp up into contention.
Still, there are a few things about Gray that stand out as potentially being quite a good fit. For one, he was a bit unlucky in 2018, as his 4.17 FIP suggests (and before you point out that even that number is far from shiny, at least take note of that mark being better than every single starter the Reds used in 2018, save for Cody Reed’s 4.12). Perhaps most importantly, though, is how well he pitched when outside of Yankee Stadium last year, as the dramatic 3.17 ERA in 70.1 road IP against the 6.98 ERA in 59.1 home IP highlights.
There’s also, y’know, the aspects of Gray’s career that made him an attractive get for the Yankees in the first place. His career in Oakland was tremendous, as he posted a 3.42 ERA, 3.29 FIP, and 1.25 WHIP in 146 starts for the A’s across 900.2 IP over the course of five seasons, including a stellar 2015 campaign that earned him an All Star nod and a 3rd place finish in the AL Cy Young Award voting. The idea of the Reds acquiring him would be bent on the same premise as the one the Yankees had in getting him - that he could truly be a rotation cog for them, and that there was reason to believe what he did in Oakland was easily replicated.
What’s a bit weird about his year and a half stay with the Yankees is what I hinted at to start this post - his mix of pitches. From 2013 through 2016 - his four full seasons spent solely in Oakland - he relied on his fastball between 55.6% of the time and 64.6% of the time, sitting above 60.5% in three of those four seasons. After using a slider just 2.0% of the time in his rookie campaign, he gradually ramped up its usage, topping out at 15.9% of the time in 2015, and that came with a gradual decrease in his curveball usage. Still, though, he relied on generally 60+% fastball, ~32% breaking ball, and on a change-up between 6-8% of the time.
Fast forward to his 2018 season with New York, however, and you see a pretty stark difference. Employing a cutter for the first real time, he used that some 20.4% of the time, which helped reduce his FB% down to a career low 35.1% usage. Meanwhile, his curveball usage spiked to 22.8%, which was by far the most often he’d ever leaned on it, while his 4.7 change-up % was the lowest of his career, too. All this, it’s worth emphasizing, came despite his average fastball velocity still sitting at 93.3 mph, which was both a career high and still roughly in-line with his career mark of 93.0 mph. In other words, he completely changed the way he tried to pitch, and the surface stats at least tend to suggest that wasn’t due to an injury.
In regards to the chicken/egg conclusion we paused on in our dive into the Reds pitch mix, this is where things begin to get a bit interesting. If Gray is truly a pitcher who thrives while leaning more on his fastball and the Yankees - who, by design, have their pitchers throw fastballs less often than any other team in MLB - tweaked his approach to damning results, would Gray be better suited pitching for a Reds team that threw fastballs more than 28 other teams out there? Is Gray exactly the kind of pitcher the Reds are trying to mold, and is getting him back to that premise what will help him regain his Oakland form?
These are the questions the front office gets to try to answer, which is an easy cop-out for me.
It’s also an interesting sub-plot that the Reds have hired Derek Johnson to be their new pitching coach, as he served as Gray’s pitching coach during a dominant college career at Vanderbilt University. So, yeah, there’s a familiarity there to be sure, and one that I’m sure will have some input in exactly how much the Reds pursue Gray. To the best of my knowledge, though, Gray has zero no-trade clause nor any true ability to force Cashman’s hand on a deal, so it’s not simply as if he can say I want to pitch for Derek and the Reds and it will just magically happen. However, if Johnson sees in Gray what he’s seen before, that certainly could be the impetus to make any potential offer from Cincinnati a good enough one to get the deal done.
For one year of Gray when Cashman has already set up a buyer’s market, I can’t imagine the price would be too costly, especially given Gray’s 2018 surface stats. Still, if any of the underlying factors for his poor performance end up being behind his stumble - and a more suitable environment is found - there’s certainly reason to believe he could be a very, very savvy addition for anyone in 2019.