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May 10, 2016

What You Need to Know

Sonny Gray's Short-Lived Mound Shuffle

by Daniel Rathman

The Monday Takeaway
When this season began, Sonny Gray was Sonny Gray. Seven innings of one-run work on Opening Day paved the way for three more quality efforts, amounting to a 2.73 ERA four starts into his 2016 campaign. Then, on April 27th, the Tigers sent Gray to the showers after just two-plus innings. And while the right-hander bounced back to log seven innings six days later, the Mariners tagged him for 11 hits and seven runs during his time on the hill.

Gray took the mound at Fenway Park on Monday looking to get back on track, and it appeared early on that he’d made an adjustment, perhaps during his between-starts bullpen session, in an effort to avoid the location mistakes that plagued him against Seattle. For most of his career, and all of 2016, Gray had worked from the first-base side of the rubber. Here’s a screengrab of his typical positioning, from last month in Toronto:

And here’s a chart that shows the same thing,

bearing in mind that since Gray is a righty, his release point is slightly west of center (catcher’s perspective) even if he begins on the east side of the rubber.

Now, here’s Gray, Monday in Boston,

which in chart form, looks like this:

Gray stuck with the adjustment through the first inning, when the Red Sox got a two-out double from Xander Bogaerts but did not score. And he stayed with it again in the second, when a one-out double by Travis Shaw turned into a run on Gray’s own wild pitch. In the third inning, the A’s graced Gray with a three-run lead, going up 4-1 on a solo homer by Khris Davis. The home half of the frame began with a walk, followed by a runner-advancing ground out, which brought Dustin Pedroia to the plate with a runner on second and one out.

The screengrab of Gray pitching to Dustin Pedroia, above, comes from the first pitch of Pedroia’s third-inning at-bat. Gray’s first pitch to Pedroia missed way inside:

via GIPHY

His next one was over but low:

via GIPHY

And the one after that was a good deal off the plate away:

via GIPHY

And now, take a look at Gray, preparing to deliver the 3-0 pitch to Pedroia:

All of a sudden, Gray had shifted back to his familiar first-base side of the rubber, where he’d stay for the rest of the night:

Initially, the (re)adjustment worked, as Pedroia grounded out and Bogaerts struck out to end the inning. But its success was short lived.

The fourth inning began with a David Ortiz double, and before it was over, Ortiz would double again—the latter off reliever Fernando Rodriguez, who entered just before Big Papi’s second at-bat of the frame. After his first two-bagger, Hanley Ramirez singled, and Travis Shaw doubled home Ortiz with the help of a missed dive attempt by Coco Crisp:

via GIPHY

The next batter, Brock Holt, struck out, but the sizzling-hot Jackie Bradley Jr. followed with an RBI single. Christian Vazquez grounded out to put Gray within an out of escaping the frame, but Mookie Betts doubled in a pair on a hanging 3-2 breaking ball. Then, Pedroia, having already seen Gray’s new release point, took a pitch low and outside before poking the 1-0 through the middle:

via GIPHY

With that, it was 6-4 Red Sox. Gray’s next pitch was wild, advancing Pedroia to second and briefly opening up first, where a still-erratic Gray immediately put Bogaerts with a walk. That’s when Bob Melvin pulled the plug on Gray’s night, bringing in Rodriguez, just in time for the long man to serve up the aforementioned two-run two-bagger to Ortiz.

And so, on a night when Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz—five innings, four runs, two walks, two strikeouts—was far from stellar, Gray and his relievers could not keep the A’s ahead. Ortiz’s double closed the book on the Oakland ace at 3 2/3 innings, eight hits, seven runs, two walks, two strikeouts, and two wild pitches. Gray threw 47 of 75 pitches for strikes, but only coaxed five swing-throughs from Boston’s bats.

The Red Sox kept on bashing after Gray’s exit, adding two more in the fifth and four in the sixth, all of them on this grand slam by Bradley:

They went on to win 14-7, improving to 19-13 while the A’s dropped to 14-19. But the visitors have bigger to fish to fry than shaking off one loss in early May. The third straight rocky start, coupled with Gray’s apparent tinkering on the rubber, is sure to be a source of consternation in the coming days.

For what it’s worth, Melvin expressed no postgame concerns about his no. 1 starter’s health, and Gray attributed his struggles to location, saying, “Everything is up and over the middle of the plate constantly.” Gray’s attempt to fix that early Monday was moving about eight inches over to the third-base side on the slab. After ditching that plan and getting shelled, with his ERA soaring to 6.00, Gray looks to be back to square one.

Quick Hits from Monday
Yesterday’s WYNTK was filled with homers of all stripes. Well, most stripes. It didn’t have anything quite like this:

With a runner on first and one away in a scoreless game, J.T. Realmuto drove a Wily Peralta offering onto the home-run sculpture at Marlins Park. The ball barely cleared the wall, and at first it appeared that the expansive yard might hold it, with Brewers center fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis chasing it toward the wall. That prompted the runner on first, Marcell Ozuna, to retreat to the bag, likely with the intention of tagging up and taking second on the play. But the same uncertainty also applied to Realmuto, who had to run out of the box while watching the flight of the ball and in doing so lost track of Ozuna. The Brewers challenged that the batter-runner passed the runner ahead of him, and sure enough…

via GIPHY

…the play was overturned from a round-tripper to an RBI single.

On some days, that might’ve spelled trouble for the Fish. Not on this one, though. Not with Jose Fernandez carving up the Brew Crew.

Fernandez put seven goose eggs on the scoreboard on 110 pitches, scattering four hits and four walks while striking out 11. Whether facing fellow righties or enemy lefties Monday, the right-hander largely pounded the same, arm-side half of the zone. But even that hint of predictability couldn’t save Craig Counsell’s bats. The Brewers whiffed 11 times on 32 curveballs, seven more on 55 fastballs, and took another four empty swings against Fernandez’s changeup. That’s 22 swings-and-misses, if you’re counting at home, the most the 23-year-old had induced in an outing since April 22, 2014, when the Braves whiffed 26 times in a fantastic duel between Fernandez and Alex Wood.

Three relievers combined to nail down the 4-1 Marlins win, although A.J. Ramos handed out three walks in two-thirds of an inning to inject some drama into the late stages of the contest. As a result, this was just the second time in Marlins history that the team’s pitchers have walked at least eight and K’d at least 15 in a nine-inning game.

***

Before we leave the subject of homers, let’s give a shoutout to the Yankees, who hit not one, not two, not three, not four, but five solo shots off Royals starter Chris Young in just 2 2/3 innings.

Carlos Beltran led the way with two jacks, including this one in the third inning,

which came after Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks led off the frame with a back-to-back set.

Beltran, who’d been in a 9-for-57 rut with just two walks and 15 strikeouts since he last went yard on April 21st, needed the dinger derby badly. Young, who’d already served up eight bombs in 29 2/3 innings, could’ve done without it. He’s now served up 13 big flies in just 32 1/3 frames on the bump, which is fitting, since all he can think about is gettin’ you home:

The tall righty was so focused on it Monday that, per the Baseball-Reference Play Index, he became just the seventh starter since 1913 to give up five long flies while recording fewer than nine outs. The last man to do it before him was former Yankee Shane Greene, who needed just 1 2/3 last May 30th in Anaheim.

Since all the homers were of the one-run variety, the Royals stayed within striking distance, at least prompting Joe Girardi to keep his high-leverage arms, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, loose down the stretch. In the end, neither of them appeared in the game, but Aroldis Chapman did, donning the pinstripes on the field for the first time after serving out his suspension. Chapman gave up a run on a double and a walk with two away in the ninth, but he retired Lorenzo Cain on a comebacker to finish off the 6-3 win.

***

Gopher balls weren’t a problem for Corey Kluber on Monday, which is generally a good sign for a pitcher facing the Astros, since A.J. Hinch’s squad loves to do its scoring by sending baseballs for a ride. Kluber was excellent early, getting the Tribe’s Twitter account excited,

and he worked around a one-out walk in a scoreless second.

Then came the third inning. And that went single, double, double, walk, single, single, RBI comebacker, comebacker, walk, before Terry Francona said “enough’s enough.” After all that,

Kluber exited with a career-low eight outs recorded in a start where the skies didn’t open up. So much for having The Look.

The Astros went on to win 7-1 behind seven strong innings from Mike Fiers, who held the Indians to three hits and two walks while punching out four. It’s the first time Houston has scored seven or more times without going yard since August 9th, 2014, when its lineup was:

1. Robbie Grossman, RF

2. Jason Castro, C

3. Chris Carter, DH

4. Marc Krauss, LF

5. Jon Singleton, 1B

6. Matt Dominguez, 3B

7. Marwin Gonzalez, SS

8. Jake Marisnick, CF

9. Gregorio Petit, 2B

Castro, who batted ninth yesterday, was the lone Astro to bat in both of those games. Scott Feldman, who started that one for Houston on the mound, closed this one with two strikeouts in a scoreless inning of relief.

The Defensive Play of the Day

Runner on third, one-run game, infield in—Brandon Phillips had to field this one cleanly or the Reds’ bullpen would’ve had another blown save to add to its miserable, mounting collection:

via GIPHY

He did, and Cincinnati held on to top Pittsburgh, 3-2.

The Defensive Non-Play of the Day

Once the Blue Jays were done topping the Giants, 3-1, they had the rest of the night to joke around…

…at Michael Saunders’ expense.

What to Watch on Tuesday

A tip of the cap is in order on this one, to radio host Dan Le Batard:

Seven major-league teams have played at Turner Field this season. One of those seven happens to be the Braves, who call the Ted home. Fredi Gonzalez’s club has played 16 games in Atlanta this year. No other team has played there more than three times. And yet, Fredi Gonzalez’s team is the only one of the seven that has failed to win more than one game at Turner Field since Opening Day.

The Braves will take the field this evening just 1-15 on their home turf, the worst friendly-confines record in baseball by several country miles. They’ve batted .235/.304/.285 at Turner Field this season. Former Brave Michael Bourn batted .238/.310/.282 last season and has been released twice since Opening Day, including from a minor-league deal with the Jays over the weekend.

After getting swept by the Diamondbacks, the Braves took a day off Monday, but they’ll get back at it with the Phillies in town this evening. Adam Morgan, who gets the ball for the visitors, will get to witness Atlanta’s home futility firsthand while dueling Matt Wisler (7:10 p.m. ET).

***

Take away the S in the Rays starter’s name, and tonight’s pitching matchup in Seattle would be ‘myly against Miley. Take away a handful of costly mistakes, and Smyly would be an early frontrunner for the American League’s Cy Young Award.

Once traded for David Price, the soon-to-be-27-year-old has vastly outperformed the now-Red Sox ace, racking up 47 strikeouts while permitting just 23 hits and eight walks in 39 2/3 innings. As Wilson Karaman pointed out a couple of weeks ago, Smyly’s early breakout is largely the product of a newfound willingness to fire his excellent fastball into the upper reaches of the strike zone, where opponents have struggled to catch up even though it averages just under 92 mph. The southpaw has induced a 31.82 percent whiff rate on swings against his four-seamer, good for second among qualifiers (200-heater minimum) behind Rich Hill.

Tonight, Smyly will encounter one of the league’s foremost fastball fiends, however, in Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano. The ex-Yankee has already clubbed five heaters over the wall this year, slugging .839 in 31 at-bats ending with four-seamers en route to the top of the long-ball leaderboard. Cano is hitless in seven lifetime at-bats against Smyly, but the Ray will need to keep up his excellent command of the hard stuff to ward off the red-hot Mariner in game two of three at Safeco (10:10 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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