keyboard_arrow_uptop

There's no time to dawdle, because these players require a deep-dive before we come up for air. So without further ado, on to the pitcher notes.

Sonny Gray
The A's were very outspoken this offseason about their desire to retain Gray, despite the fact that Billy Beane likes trading baseball players the way Cookie Monster likes chocolate chips and that Gray was by far Oakland's most desirable commodity. There's always the likelihood that the media is just reporting fluff or taking someone's words out of proportion, but, if true, the declaration seemed to make little sense. I assumed that Beane was just upping the asking price by creating more demand around the player, because this was a young pitcher with a slight frame and a weak K rate who would lose all trade value if he succumbed to injury or ineffectiveness under the A's watch. Surely the A's would want to make the most of this asset before it lost its luster.

No trade was made, and sure enough, his performance has imploded and his trade value has potentially fallen through the floor.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

May 15

5.2

6

6

3

2

4

75

May 20

3.3

5

6

0

4

3

99

Pitch command used to be Gray's calling card, but his ability to locate pitches has completely abandoned him. He walked four batters in just 3 1/3 innings of his last start, threw two wild ones among 99 pitches in total while recording just 10 outs against the Yankees before he was pulled and the A's were forced to go into the bullpen much earlier than they were hoping. He was actually tied for the most wild pitches in the majors coming into the game with six, but now his total of eight wild pitches on the campaign is well ahead of every other pitcher in baseball.

The strikeouts are still in the typical range for Sonny on a per-inning basis, but entering today his 18.9-percent K rate would qualify as the worst of his career if over a full season, as his per-inning K rate is is buffered by the fact that Gray is facing so many batters per inning. The walk rate was an even 10.0 percent entering yesterday's contest, in which he raised the rates by walking four of the 21 batters that he faced. He has given up five or more runs in four consecutive starts, and the one before that string involved four earnies over just 2.0 innings, underscoring the grueling length of this slump by Gray.

His raw velocity is down a tick from last season, on average, though it's worth noting that his pitch-speed has been increasing while his performance has gone in the tank over the past month. Pretty much every pitch is getting blasted, including both breaking balls, the fastball and the change. His sinker is not getting the desired result, and despite throwing half as many sinkers as four-seamers it's the former that has been responsible for four of his eight homers allowed this season. Based on the anecdotal evidence, it's not so much an issue of ineffective stuff as it is a complete lack of pitch command on any of his offerings, and his stuff is not at the level where he can get away with issue of location. The hit rate is up, the walk rate is way up and the frequency of home runs has skyrocketed, and when those three elements come together it tells you that sheer luck has little to do with the problem. Missing spots with diminished stuff is an easy recipe for crooked numbers on the scoreboard.

Justin Verlander
Waiting for Verlander to recapture his former MVP-level glory is like waiting for Joe Mauer to recapture the power stroke that he had for that one glorious summer of 2009. The days of complete and utter domination are likely over for Verlander, but the rapid descent into madness that he experienced was beyond what anyone expected.

Things went from bad to worse for Verlander, and just when he hit bottom (around the All-Star break of last season), the right-hander suddenly turned things around and finished with solid numbers. The 2016 season started much the same way as '15, with Verlander struggling to hit spots and whispers coming from some circles that the end was nigh, but he responded with a marvelous pair of starts over the last week that have put him back in the circle of trust.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

May 13

8.0

1

4

1

2

8

112

May 18

7.3

3

6

0

3

10

112

The overall numbers are still less than impressive, with a composite ERA of 4.58 on the season and a penchant for surrendering homers, but beneath the surface we see that Verlander is striking out more than a batter per inning (60 Ks in 57.0 frames), with the K counts rising such that he has 27 Ks over his last three starts and 22 1/3 innings pitched. Verlander actually threw quality starts in four of his first five turns this season, yet after five starts his ERA stood at 5.46 because many of the “quality” starts were of the baseline variety – three earned runs over 6.0 innings pitched – and the one outlier included seven earned runs over 5.0 innings.

He then took that ERA into his first start of May and promptly gave up seven more earnies, effectively tarnishing his ERA for another month, a factor which obscures the improved performance, because after that second seven-ER game he went on the three-start streak that he currently enjoys.

Fastball velocity has been a focal point as evaluators try to understand and explain Verlander's struggles, and his performance this season would seem to follow the conventional wisdom that throwing harder produces better results. The velo was noticeably down in his first three turns but has since ticked up, but the problem with this lazy analysis is that one of the games with higher velocity was also a seven-run fiasco at the hands of the Indians.

The difference was keyed onto fastball command, though throwing those pitches with less juice certainly didn't help matters for Verlander. Up through the game on May 3, Verlander's fastball had been smashed for six home runs and eight doubles in 79 at-bats that ended on the heat, good for an opponents slugging percentage of .608 and a .329 ISO, but he gave up just three doubles and one homer in the 54 at-bats that finished with one of his secondaries, resulting in a combined ISO under .100 for his non-fastballs. In 77 at-bats over the last three games, Verlander has given up just one double and one home run among all of his pitches combined, and the opponents' slugging on his fastball has fallen to .286 with a .095 ISO.

Jon Gray
It's amazing how quickly the fantasy community, Twitterverse, et al can flip their opinion on a player. For about 15 seconds, Gray was a big-ticket item and popular grab off the fantasy waiver wire, thanks to a dominating start at altitude, an excellent K-to-walk ratio and his upcoming start on the road in St. Louis. The problem is that the St. Louis offense can wreak havoc on even the best pitchers, and Gray endured an ugly start against the Cardinals that completely reversed the goodwill generated by the previous start.

Game Stats

Date

IP

R

H

HR

BB

K

PC

May 13

7.0

2

5

0

1

8

105

May 19

3.3

9

8

0

3

3

75

The May 13 home start against the Mets was Gray's third impressive outing in a row, following road visits to San Francisco and San Diego, and over the three-game stretch he posted a 1.80 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just four walks allowed in 20.0 innings. Opposing batters mustered a combined three extra-base hits (all doubles) across the three games, but the Cardinals knocked three doubles during Gray's three-plus innings against them, in addition to five singles and a trio of walks, with the latter representing his highest single-game total of the season.

When Gray was drafted back in 2013, scouts were throwing sevens and eights on both his fastball and his slider. The heater had both elite velocity and excellent movement, while the slider was a sharp snapper that came out of the hand the same as his fastball and left batters guessing as to what was coming. His changeup was an afterthought, largely because it wasn't necessary for Gray to dominate college hitters, but the Rockies set out to address the issue ASAP. Gray was on a pro mound within months of being drafted, and the Rockies instituted a some mandates to require that he use the changeup in order to develop the pitch, and the results were incredible. He went from throwing changeups because it was required to throwing them as two-strike pitches because that's what he wanted to use. His accelerated learning curve was apparent, and since I already liked his mechanics, I saw a pitcher with elite stuff, a solid delivery and an apparent Neo-like learning curve, and I was ready to proclaim Gray as the rare pitcher who might actually succeed in Coors.

Fast-forward to spring of this year, and I had grown pessimistic about Gray. The 80-grade velocity that had once been his baseline appeared to be fading, and in Gray's two months of big league work in 2015 his average fastball checked in at a merely plus 94.6 mph. When I diagnosed Gray's debut, I liked what I saw mechanically. but noted that his balance had gone backward a bit from the previous season (in the minors), specifically that there was an exaggerated drop to his delivery that artificially lowered his center of gravity. Things looked even worse in spring training, as the balance-drop was even more pronounced in the footage that I saw.

Today, that pessimism has flipped once again.

Yes, I'm writing this after Gray was pummeled by the Cards. Even in that disaster outing, his delivery looked so much better than what I saw this spring or last fall. His delivery was a little bit slow, though it looked better from the stretch because he added a dose of momentum. He remained well balanced from first movement through release point, and was achieving high-end torque thanks to a strong delay to his trigger that helped to increase hip-shoulder separation. Sure enough, Gray's average fastball this season is up to 96.4 mph, with an increasing trend in the early season such that his last two games had the two highest average velocities.

Starting in the first frame, many of the Cardinals hits were made on good pitches that hit targets around the frame of the strike zone, but St. Louis batters made contact – some of it loud, some of it blooped – early and often. Gray actually had a pretty good day in terms of pitch execution, but he was just beaten by the Cardinals offense – one of the best in baseball – on this day. The first inning was a perfect encapsulation, as Gray gave up a two-run single on a grounder against the shift that would have been a tailor-made 6-3 if not for said shift. But even while getting lit up, Gray was able to do things like this:

As is so often the case, Gray was an underappreciated ballplayer who was suddenly thrust into the spotlight, but the Cardinals ruined his big chance in front of a larger audience. He's not nearly as bad as the St. Louis game might indicate, but he might just be as good as his peripheral numbers look on the season, with 39 strikeouts and 10 walks in 39.0 innings. Starting him on the road is still a good idea, starting him at home is still to be avoided, and those who were burned by the first start might consider that they underestimated the Cardinals offense.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
cliffcook
5/22
always a great read. I have been looking for anything on shelby miller - have I missed it or is your judgment still TBD