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The rock-solid early returns from Cincinnati Reds starter Sonny Gray

The righty has looked quite good in his first year in Cincinnati.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

There’s an age-old adage in baseball writing that says if you really want to write about a particular player, wait until they have their single best performance of the season before doing so. Between that and the arbitrary endpoint of the ‘first half’ of the MLB season wrapping this weekend, I figured it time to check back on the single biggest addition made by the Cincinnati Reds this past off-season, at least in terms of dollar amount.

Sonny Gray came to the Reds via the New York Yankees after a much-publicized failure of a 2018 season, with Yankees GM Brian Cashman all but giving out Gray’s phone number when revealing that it was a no-brainer that the former Oakland A’s ace would be traded before the 2019 season. For the price of 2B prospect Shed Long and a compensation round draft pick, Reiver Sanmartin and Gray became part of the Reds organization, with Gray also signing a lucrative contract extension that could max out at some 5 years and $50 million.

Despite the influx of pitching prowess brought in through other trades and the potential already in the Cincinnati rotation, that’s the kind of move and commitment that wrote the words top of the rotation starter pretty clearly on the walls for Gray before he ever threw a pitch in a Reds uniform. It was admittedly high praise for a pitcher fresh off a 4.90 ERA season that saw him demoted to the bullpen in New York for his foibles.

That, though, is one of the many risks teams with lesser spending power must take in the baseball landscape, however, and was one the Reds were willing to take. Part of that had to do with Gray’s odd splits from last year - he excelled away from Yankee Stadium, but was horrendous in it - as well as with who Gray was. The 29 year old revealed earlier this year that his first trip to see a big league game ever was in GABP with his late father, as they drove hours up from their Nashville, TN home to catch a game. It’s those Nashville roots that played a huge part in the Gray trade, too, as the former Vanderbilt University product was set to be reunited with his former college pitching coach, as Derek Johnson - and a staff featuring Gray’s former Vandy teammate Caleb Cotham - had been brought over from Milwaukee to revamp the Reds horrid run of pitching.

It had all the ingredients to be a successful move. Out of the New York spotlight, back closer to home, surrounded by folks who were part of a previous success story, and on a deal that could - if all went well - end up rewarding the team that doled it out as being team-friendly relative to the high-end free agent pitching market. And 17 starts into what could be a 5 year journey, things sure do look rather storybook-ish.

Gray’s 3.59 ERA to date sits just under his 3.65 career mark, and the 3.35 FIP he boasts would be the single best he’s ever posted in a full season of work. The same can be said of his 10.3 K/9 and 3.12 K/BB marks, as both would serve as the best full-season numbers of his career if he can keep them up through the season’s second half. He’s on a 4 bWAR, 4.5 fWAR pace, and his 129 ERA+ would be his second best full-season mark of his career behind only his brilliant 2015 season - the one where he finished 3rd in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

That certainly looks like a bounce-back year on the surface, but the reality is that many of those numbers do look quite similar to the 2018 Gray who was publicly ousted from the Yankees. At least, they look at lot like his road numbers from last year, when he boasted a 3.17 ERA, 9.9 K/9, and 3.55 K/BB in 71.0 IP outside of Yankee Stadium. So, props to the portions of the Cincinnati front office and coaching staffs that saw enough of Gray in particular spots last year to think that he still had top of the rotation capabilities going forward.

It’s something particular that Gray isn’t doing in 2019 that is of particular interest to me at this juncture, though. Way back in November when Gray was nothing more than a potential trade target of the Reds, we looked closer not just as the numbers that showed his struggles in 2018, but at some of the ones that might be behind why he struggled. Particularly, I looked at his employment of a cutter that he leaned on over 20% of the time, a pitch that he’d never once leaned on more than 3.5% of the time before in his professional career prior to 2018. The Yankees are rather notorious for their extreme lack of four-seam fastball usage, instead asking their pitchers to throw cutters and breaking pitches more than any other team in baseball in recent years, and that certainly appeared to be their ask of Gray last year. Unsurprisingly, you can also see that in terms of pitch value - meaning how successful those pitches were against batters on the whole - Gray’s cutter was also the least valuable pitch in his expanded repertoire last year.

Fast-forward to this season, and you’ll see that Gray has thrown his cutter a whopping 0.5% of the time, and the fact that its average velocity dropped nearly 5 full mph makes me wonder if even that means it was wrongly qualified by FanGraphs. Abandoning that pitch has obviously meant that he’s had to use other offerings in increased capacity, and his four-seam fastball usage has jumped nearly 15%, now back to being a pitch he leans on over half the time. That, of course, was a pitch he routinely sat on over 60% of the time in his days back in Oakland, so that’s clearly a sign of him getting back to leaning on things that are his strengths rather than learning pitches that could perhaps help him if mastered, a major tenet of Johnson’s coaching philosophy.

Of course, one thing that’s remained from his year-plus with the Yankees is a renewed focus on his curveball, a pitch that he’s again using over 20% of the time this year. There’s good reason behind keeping that pitch around - Gray’s 5.1 wCB ranks as the 8th best in all of baseball, meaning it’s quite the elite breaking pitch. Once again, when you factor in that his curveball has the 13th best spin rate in all of baseball as well as the 13th best vertical drop in all of baseball, you can certainly see why focusing on that as his go-to secondary offering has been quite rewarding for both he and the Reds.

In all, it’s been both a return to roots and a return to form season for Gray thus far, one that should have both he and the Reds feeling pride as they head into the All Star break. And with the Reds just 3.5 games out of first place in the tightly-packed NL Central, we should all be able to rest a little bit easier knowing that the Reds have a damn fine option to turn to every fifth day in Gray, one who’ll they’ll fortunately have around for many years down the road, as well.