The Oakland Athletics have quietly stormed out of the gate this season, currently leading the American League West in pursuit of their third consecutive division title. While that has yet to result in any real postseason success, the recent emergence of the Oakland ballclub has led to plenty of positive exposure for rising ace Sonny Gray.
Gray saw a handful of starts toward the tail end of last season, appearing in a dozen games overall and making 10 starts in 2013. He added a pair of starts in the postseason to that, posting a 2.08 ERA and 12 strikeouts against the Detroit Tigers on the national stage, including a start in which he outpitched Justin Verlander. We’re just over a month into the young 2014 campaign, and he’s already made a name for himself as the ace of the Oakland A’s.
Named the American League Pitcher of the Month for the month of April, Gray posted a 4-1 record during 2014’s opening month and went for a 1.76 ERA. It was a month that concluded with him outdueling Yu Darvish on the road in a complete game shutout of the Texas Rangers in which he punched out six hitters and only allowed three hits.
On the season, Gray’s numbers are mighty impressive. His ERA currently sits at 1.91 and he’s striking out 7.66 batters per nine, which is a touch lower than his career averages in the small sample size that came before 2014. His walks are also a touch higher than normal, just barely up over three per nine. His FIP indicates that he’s relied plenty on his defense, with that figure up at a still solid 3.04.
In reality, Gray hasn’t been a runaway Cy Young worthy “dominant”. He’s been extremely effective, though, in getting batters out in utilizing his defense behind him and keeping the baserunners that he does allow stranded. For Gray, his success is all about mixing his pitches, two of which he relies on most often, and location. Not that that formula is different for any pitcher.
Nonetheless, Gray’s fastball/curveball combination works for him. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he primarily uses his curveball when he’s not bringing the heat. The sinker and changeup work their way in there occasionally, but it’s the former two that make up the bulk of his pitch counts in each start. He sets hitters up with the fastball and utilizes the curveball as his main strikeout pitch. He hasn’t done a tremendous job missing bats to this point in the season, but when he does, it primarily comes by way of the hook.
Gray’s success is aided by his location. He does a tremendous job keeping the ball down in the zone, regardless of pitch type. He goes low and away against right-handed hitters, while attacking lefties low and inside. His ability to locate his pitches is absolutely dynamite, and has aided his early success in such a limited time.
In his short time at the big league level, Sonny Gray has proven a lot. He’s a big game pitcher and has the ability to rise to the occasion when squaring off against the league’s best on the bump. He isn’t a Jose Fernandez type that’s going to strikeout a dozen hitters every outing, but he’s proven dominant in his own way. His mix of pitches makes him extremely effective in getting guys out, even if the majority of those don’t include a strikeout.
There’s a chance his strikeouts could go back up, and his walk numbers should dip a bit from where they are now. If those figures each go in the direction in which they should, then Gray is only going to get better. Which may be a terrifying thought for the rest of Major League Baseball.