Ahead of game five, Oakland manager Bob Melvin had a tough choice to make. Both Bartolo Colon and Sonny Gray were available on full rest. And though he has indicated that Sonny Gray is his starter, what this post presupposes is: what if he hadn’t told us who was starting. Who would we choose to be his starter?
The Case for Colon
Over the course of the season, these are the statistics in which Bartolo Colon owned an advantage over Sonny Gray: ERA, walk rate and wins. He’s got 16 years of life experience on Gray, and nine more postseason starts in his rear-view mirror. That’s a fairly old-school case, but there is one over-riding appealing factor to this package of arguments: sample size.
We know who Bartolo Colon is. Almost 200 innings into 2013 Colon, we know that he’ll his two fastballs almost 85% of the time — more than any other qualified starting pitcher in baseball. And, even if that really encompasses four or five different fastballs, we know that help him with his control because fastballs have the best strike rates. We know he’ll minimize the damage.
Along with all this veteran experience comes a pre-game ritual that’s fairly set in stone. Once the decision was made, Melvin even referenced that ritual, saying that Colon was “willing to do anything and was great about it” but that the manager wasn’t sure because the pitcher “has a little different routine.” In the end, he confirmed that he has not ruled out Colon as a reliever, but maybe Colon would be more comfortable starting, with Gray in the back pocket.
As much as we liked Sonny Gray the last time out, we know a lot less about him. 64 innings into a career — 261 batters faced — does not seem like a full compendium on the subject. And yet, if you’re speaking statistically, that much sample is enough to say that we can believe the Gray’s strikeout, walk, ground-ball and fly-ball rates.
The Case for Sonny Gray
Here are the statistics in which Gray was superior to Colon this year: strikeout rate, ground-ball rate, fly-ball rate, home-run rate, FIP, SIERA, and fastball velocity. As you can see, most of those have ‘stabilized’ in that his past work in those fields is more informative to us than the league mean. And not only has Gray beaten Colon in some of these categories, he’s really outpaced the veteran. His strikeout rate (25.7%) was much better than Colon’s (15.2%), or the difference between a top-thirty rate or a bottom-third rate. His ground-ball rate (52.9%) would also be top-forty in that category, compared to Colon’s below-average 41.5%.
And, for example, take his fastball velocity. Listed at 93.1 for the season (to Colon’s sub-90), Gray’s been pushing that advantage further in the playoffs. He hit 96+ once all season in 995 pitches and did it three times in the third inning of game two. Maybe that’s what Melvin meant when he said that Gray was “a bit of a bulldog, he’s scared of nothing.” Colon’s fastball was up in this series, too, though. He averaged almost 91 on the sinker, and the four-seamer was up to 94. He even crossed the 96 mph threshold once himself.
But the strikeout rate thing, and the ground-ball rate thing, that favors Gray by a mile. And those two things are, traditionally, the best way to get batters out (although it’s worth mentioning that the Athletics are much better in the outfield (22.5 UZR) than the infield (-9.4 UZR) defensively). Mostly, Gray does it with his curve balls — he has two of them — and great location with his two main pitches. But Gray’s curveball gets double-digit movement in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions, so it’s not a great pitch against lefties. In fact, he loses two-thirds of his whiffs on the curve when he uses it against lefties. So he uses it less against lefties and tries to use his change more — that same change that’s “good somedays.”
Not surprisingly, Sonny Gray has some platoon splits. His walk rate against lefties this past season doubled when compared to righties. And his strikeout rate fell. And opposing teams stacked the lineups with lefties against him — he actually saw more lefties than righties on the season (153 to 108, or 59% vs 50% league average). So there’s some concern here, even if we’re chopping up the data some.
Well, Bartolo Colon has some platoon issues of his own as Jeff Sullivan pointed out. And if you look at one of my favorite posts — platoon splits on pitches — you’ll see that the sinker (Colon’s favorite) and the slurve (the best way to describe the big horizontal curve from Gray) have the worst platoon splits in baseball.
The decision has been made. As Melvin put it, the A’s have “a lot of smart people in our front office” but it “came down to Sonny’s last game.” This decision was “all about Sonny Gray.” And it’s hard not to think back to Game Two and think this is the right choice.
But in reality the answer might have to be “both.” Because if both of these men are best used against right-handers, they may need a little help in the middle from a lefty reliever. The good news for the Athletics is that the other guy will be right there once the dangerous lefties have passed. The bad news — if there is any — is that the team is going with the guy who might be more comfortable coming out of the pen, and is hoping that the veteran can adjust if he’s needed.
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