The Case For Colon, The Case for Gray

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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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

24 Responses to “The Case For Colon, The Case for Gray”

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  1. Pat G says:

    dude, proof read. actually just fix the third paragraph, where i can only assume you continued to write through a serious plumbing issue and full thoughts didn’t make it to the page.

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    • Pat G says:

      Melvin even referenced that ritual, saying that Colon was “willing to do anything and was great about it” but that he manager wasn’t sure he because the pitcher “has a little different routine.”

      That one made my brain hurt.

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      • Eno Sarris says:

        The two troublesome t’s have been found. Somehow they evaded capture in my three proofreads. Thanks.

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        • Pat G says:

          i still think the second “the” in “but that the manager wasn’t sure the because the pitcher”should be a “though” and feel free to delete this comment after because im not trying to be condescending or anything, just trying to help readability (is that a word?)

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        • Eno Sarris says:

          Not that you care, but what happened was that I had a post I’d gone over a few times, and then I got the corrected version of the quotes from the conference call, and that sentence changed. I’ll check the other places where I might have updated the quotes.

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  2. Pat G says:

    I’ve already derailed this thread haha. In all seriousness though, are we surprised they are going Gray? This looks exactly like the Cole v Burnett case in St. Louis greater courts settled not 24 hours ago.

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  3. Jim Bouldin says:

    Good article, thanks.

    I don’t think his platoon splits are very important in this case because the only decision Leyland has to make, platoon-wise, is whether to go with Peralta vs Dirks/Kelly in left. And given what Jhonny has done the last two games, we know what that will be.

    “But Gray’s curveball gets double-digit movement in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions, so it’s not a great pitch against lefties.”
    I’m not following the logical connection there. I thought great movement in two dimensions was a decidedly good thing, no matter which box is occupied.

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    • Eno Sarris says:

      The platoon thing just went into the idea that the A’s might need to go to a lefty early, in which case both pitchers would be useful and so on. Since they both have platoon splits, it can’t — by itself — be a reason to pick one over the other.

      As for the movement thing, the more cut your pitch has, the more of a platoon split the pitch has normally. So a curveball that is more straight up and down — like Wainwright’s — has less of a platoon split than a slurve-y pitch — like Jose Fernandez and Sonny Gray have.

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      • Jim Bouldin says:

        OK, gotcha, thanks.

        Seemed to me that Gray very much had a 12 to 6 curve, or close to it, from what I saw in game two, but I admittedly haven’t looked closely at his pitch f/x data, so my impression could be biased.

        No matter what, this kid is tough, no question about it. Very fortunately for the Tigers, this is now the second time seeing him, and I think that’s a bigger advantage for them than is the A’s seeing Justin for the second time.

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        • Eno Sarris says:

          There could be a bit of a classification issue going on, considering he says he has two curveballs. But when I looked at his two curves, the fast curve was 80% tagged as a slider. So his curve has a definite platoon split and isn’t as great against lefties. And if you watch his approach against lefties, there’s some trepidation there.

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  4. bada bing says:

    As a Tiger fan, I’m terrified to see that Gray is starting game 5. His stuff looks legit, and his numbers are starting to back that as he throws more innings. He also probably has a better jump shot than Colon.

    I was watching Oakland take batting practice before game 4 and Colon kept on shooting ‘jumpers’ with a baseball, trying to make it in a bucket. I didn’t see him make one out of about 15 tries. I don’t think he has much of a career in basketball. Also, fat.

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  5. rageon says:

    I was surprised they went with Gray, instead assuming that Colon would start and Gray would be available in relief — and that was before the whole “Colon has some weird ritual that more or less precludes him working in relief” relevation. That said, I’m not sure the different between them matters a whole lot. I suppose Gray is the “high variance” choice that is more likely to throw a shutout. However, I think he’s also more likely to be pulled after 6 innings, leaving it to a bullpen with a couple guys (Cook and Doolittle) that have been hard to trust recently.

    The thing about Colon having some specific routine just seems weird to me. I would have predicted he was one of the least likely to pitchers to be like that and among the most likely to just roll out of bed and throw 7 innings on a whim.

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      Just because he’s rotund and clown-like doesn’t mean he’s not dead serious about his job. OK, fine I thought the same thing.

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  6. Jim Bouldin says:

    Speaking of big breaking curves, Jim Price (Tigers radio color guy and former catcher) refers to them as “yellowhammers”, a term I’ve never heard. Anybody know the origin or meaning of that term?

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    • John says:

      I hope Verlander has his Yellowhammer working tonight. While I think Gray has better “stuff” I think Colon is a professional pitcher who knows how to get hitter out. Every time I watch him pitch and he pounds the strike zone makes me think of last year when Colon threw 38 straight strikes. I think the Tigers will take a better approach against Gray this time and Verlander will give them a chance to win, just like last year.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        Well this implies that Verlander is awesome and neither Gray nor Colon is anywhere near as good, all of which is true. That is, Gray has better stuff, Colon knows how to get hitters out and Verlander is both.

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    • theroundsquare says:

      I listen to a lot of Tigers games, and Price has explained that he played with a pitcher who referred to a big curveball as a “yellow hammer.” The name comes from the name of a species of bird found in Europe that apparently has a penchant for flying and diving.

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      • Jim Bouldin says:

        Ah, thanks, an important lead! I’ll bet it’s actually a reference to another (American) bird, also known as a yellowhammer, a subspecies of the northern flicker (the yellow shafted flicker). Flickers definitely have a diving habit, as do many woodpeckers. And Wikipedia says that a yellowhammer refers specifically to a 12 to 6 curveball, not just any big breaking curve.

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        • John says:

          It would make great radio, or tv for that matter if a 12-6 curveball was called a Yellow Shafted Flicker.

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        • Jim Bouldin says:

          I’m going to find Price’s contact info and send that suggestion to him. We know for a fact that Dan Dickerson reads FanGraphs, so maybe he’ll see this and tell Jim.

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  7. Ben says:

    Sonny Gray is the better pitcher. Case closed.

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  8. Johnston says:

    It looks like it didn’t matter at all which one of them pitched.

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