Sonny Gray for Ace

In 12 appearances including 10 starts, Sonny Gray did all the things you want to see out of a potential fantasy workhorse. He struck out over a batter per inning (9.42 K/9), kept the walk rate under control (2.81 BB/9), and threw ground balls over 50 percent of the time, all while wielding a 93 mph fastball. His ERA, FIP, and xFIP all stood below 3.00, which is about as sure a sign of dominance as there can be.

If there’s anything to complain about with the 23-year-old, it’s that he has such a short track record as a professional. Before his 64 inning cup of tea last season, Gray threw just 292 minor league innings over about two seasons. He threw just 22 innings in 2011 and turned in a lackluster performance in 2012. That included a strikeout rate of 5.90 K/9, a K/BB ratio of 1.70, and a 4.14 ERA. His minor league numbers saw stark improvement in 2013 and matched those he put up in his short MLB debut.

His major league data contain one odd piece of information – opposing hitters were disinclined to swing at Gray’s pitches. They offered at just 22.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone and 58.9 percent of pitches within the zone. For comparison, the league averages were 31 percent O-Swing and 65.5 percent Z-Swing.

I looked at Danny Salazar and Michael Wacha to see if this had something to do with his short track record in the majors. All three pitchers received a similar amount of major league experience last year and featured comparable peripherals. However, Wacha saw typical swing rates while Salazar induced swings at an above average rate. It’s possible that we’re looking at a small sample fluctuation.

His O-Swing rate was actually the lowest among all pitchers with 60 innings last season, including relievers. His Z-Swing was sixth lowest, which combined to give him the lowest overall swing rate. Perhaps we can tease out some explanation from his PITCHf/x data.

Gray PU

He features a deep six pitch repertoire although he only uses four pitches with regularity. My first thought was that the slider and cut fastball were actually the same pitch, but they feature a five mph velocity gap and move differently. Gray has a standard approach, he likes to get ahead with the hard stuff then bring in the curve ball. The four seam fastball and curve ball were his best pitches last season, although the sample size involved is too small to get excited. Despite excellent numbers with his curve ball, the whiff rate on the pitch is merely good at 15 percent.

Gray RA

My suspicion is that he does a good job of working on the edges of the strike zone. Bill Petti and Jeff Zimmerman found that pitching to the edges of the strike zone improves overall performance while building their Edge% statistic. My hypothesis is that Gray does this particularly well. Combined with his deep repertoire, that could explain his low swing rates. I don’t have access to Edge% data on Gray, so I have overlaid his pitch map with two boxes that approximate the zone used by Petti and Zimmerman.

Gray Edge

A good Edge% is around 20 percent (between the 75th and 90th percentile) and it certainly looks like Gray has reached that threshold (I recommend zooming in on the chart for full effect). I also split his season into thirds since we’re only using the eye test. It looks similar for each smaller chunk of data. Gray also does a great job of hugging the bottom of the strike zone, which isn’t part of Edge%. That’s a big reason why his ground ball rate is so good.

Assuming his command and control hold up over the offseason, these findings bode very well for Gray. If I had to pick a single young pitcher in the game who has the best chance to become a Cliff Lee quality ace, it would be Gray. But don’t get too excited, he still has much to prove since the league did not have much time to adjust to him last season.

He should be a fairly low injury risk for a pitcher, which is to say that there’s about a 30 percent chance he will land on the disabled list. He did suffer a quiet thumb injury in his final postseason appearance against the Tigers. The injury – which was to his glove hand – required offseason surgery. That shouldn’t affect his overall health profile.

He didn’t pitch enough to land on Zach Sander’s list, but he was probably worth roughly $6 in his limited time. Next season projects to around $15 of value. His price tag in drafts is unknown. He outdueled Justin Verlander once in the postseason, which is the kind of exploit that brings attention on a player. Still, I expect owners to target him as a good third tier pitcher (roughly $9 last season) whereas I’m inclined to target him around where James Shields went (about $14). In snake drafts, I expect name brand players like Jon Lester and Tim Lincecum to go off the board before Gray, but I would jump on Gray before either veteran – at least I would if my drafts were held today.

 




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Brad is a former collegiate player who writes for FanGraphs, MLB Trade Rumors, The Hardball Times, RotoWorld, and The Fake Baseball. He's also the lead MLB editor for RotoBaller. Follow him on Twitter @BaseballATeam or email him here.


30 Responses to “Sonny Gray for Ace”

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  1. Nick J says:

    Good article, I’d enjoy to see more of the edge% in following articles. That statistic could be the deciding factor on which young flame thrower to roster, and will show why guys, such as Doolittle with 95+ get tapped from time to time. How would you rank Salazar, Wacha, Grey? I would take Salazar first, because I love his fastball, but Wacha and Grey are so damn similar its a toss up for me.

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  2. ryan says:

    Without sounding overly negative, here are the 10 team that Sonny started against in 2013 – Tor, Hou, Bal, Sea, Tam, Hou, Min, Laa, Min, Sea,

    Of those 10 games, 6 of them were against the three worst teams in baseball – Min, Sea, and Hou. He let 4 runs against Tor and 6 runs against Bal.

    I really like this site, but it is a pretty big oversight to declare a pitcher an ace when his team obviously matched him up against weaker teams. You can throw the major league stats out the window until he faces real competition for a sustained period of time.

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    • KG says:

      He’s prognosticating ryan. The article reiterates time and time again that it is a small sample size. Indeed, it’s to early to declare Sonny Gray an ace. Sorta like how after you read only the headline, you jumped immediately declared the article invalid. Knucklehead!!!

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      • ryan says:

        KG – I do not understand the insult. I am stating Sonny’s major league statistics are deflated because he played 60% of his games against the three worst teams in the league. To conduct statistical analysis and draw any conclusions on Sonny Gray is flawed.

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      • KG says:

        Ryan: He never declares the pitcher an ace. The author is simply exploring, in the limited data (which he decries as a substantial knock against him) what worked for him, and what might work for him in the future, compared with similar data sets, and why Sonny Gray might have the makings FOR ace status.

        If you meet someone one time, can you form an opinion on that person? Yes, you can, and you will. Should you judge them and stamp them forever? Of course not, small sample size. The idea that you should ignore data just because it is not approaching comprehensiveness is futile and reactionary, and for a website focused on predicting future outcomes, the author is trying to isolate variables regardless of sample size, and examine what might be sustainable.

        Here’s the article’s money quote, rendering your initial comment moot:

        “If I had to pick a single young pitcher in the game who has the best chance to become a Cliff Lee quality ace, it would be Gray. But don’t get too excited, he still has much to prove since the league did not have much time to adjust to him last season.”

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    • Sixto Lezcano says:

      And Ryan, you are conveniently forgetting his starts against Justin Verlander in the ALDS where we all saw what he has to offer a good team. Yes, the jury is still out because the sample size is small, not because he can’t succeed against quality opponents.

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      • A's Fan says:

        I was going to say the same thing… he had two solid starts against Detroit in the LDS. Detroit’s offense had the 2nd best wOBA and wRC+ in baseball, and the lowest K% (16.8%) in baseball.

        In 13 innings, Gray allowed 3 runs (2 of them coming on a mistake pitch to Miguel Cabrera) and had 12 strikeouts. Not bad for a 23-year-old rookie pitching two must-win games in the playoffs (Game 2 was pretty much a must-win slso).

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      • ryan says:

        I assumed that this article did not use the post season stats in their analysis. Perhaps I was wrong, but the article states, “12 appearances including 10 starts”. If they had included the post season games, it would have read “14 appearances including 12 starts”.

        Again, I am only commenting from a statistical analysis perspective. I only wanted to contextualize the statistical analysis above. I had not commented on Sonny Gray as a pitcher. If I was to comment on Sonny Gray from a qualitative perspective, I think Fangraphs has done a great assessment on Sonny Gray.

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    • Chicago Mark says:

      Ryan, you said, “it is a pretty big oversight to declare a pitcher an ace”. Nobody, NOBODY declared him an ace. There is no oversite here. Unless it’s by you. KG and Sixto are trying to show you this. Although calling someone a knucklehead is not nice.
      Brad chose to write about Gray. Anything he writes would not be 100% accurate because of small sample size. Brad says this. The only other way to give an opinion on Gray would be to give no opinion at all. This is a fantasy site. We fantasy players want to hear from the site about as many players as possible, including those with limited data.
      Here is Brad’s summation on Gray.
      “Assuming his command and control hold up over the offseason, these findings bode very well for Gray. If I had to pick a single young pitcher in the game who has the best chance to become a Cliff Lee quality ace, it would be Gray. But don’t get too excited, he still has much to prove since the league did not have much time to adjust to him last season.”
      That’s a quote Ryan. “BUT DON’T GET TOO EXCITED”. And “HE STILL HAS MUCH TO PROVE”.
      If you need it I’ll give it to you. Nice of you to point out the weak offenses he pitched to. Thanks!
      But in the end, the job was done and done well. We got information on Gray. It will help those of us who choose to use it.

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      • another Ryan says:

        Well I will be using ryan’s information as well, you can choose to ignore it if you so choose, just like he can choose to add something to the discussion. Don’t get all butthurt because he suggests a very important point. You can thing your precious sonny gray is perfect if you want. ryan is being the polite one here.

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    • studstats_13 says:

      agree

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    • DominicanRepublican says:

      Let’s also note that Gray will be playing some of those teams (Houston, Seattle) quite often this coming season. For a RotoGraphs article, this is what matters.

      If you take out the A’s (who Gray obviously won’t face), the AL West had the second worst average wRC+ of any division in all of baseball last season at 95.75. The only division with a worse offense by this metric was the terrible NL East.

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  3. ryan says:

    You keep on bringing up the term sample size. I never used that term once. I am talking strictly about validity of data from a statistical perspective. That is it. This article did a statistical analysis on 10 games – 10 games that are heavily skewed towards Sonny pitching against the three worst teams in baseball. Somehow, in all of the statistical analysis, that very big fact got lost in the calculations. That was my only point – not all of the other inferences you have made.

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    • Chicago Mark says:

      Sorry but needs also to be said. You insinuate small sample above! “10 games – 10 games that are….” You give us this impression. You never use the term small sample size but then you really hi-lite the 10 game sample.
      Again, use the data if you choose.
      Good luck!

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      • Matt says:

        Ryan isn’t saying the sample is small and should be looked at with caution, Ryan is saying the sample is irrelevant and shouldn’t be looked at at all because the starts were against bad teams. He’s wrong, but he’s not using small sample size as the justification for his wrongness.

        Yes, we have a small sample of Sonny Gray’s pitching, much of it against bad teams. But that’s still data that can be looked at, data that shows some good signs.

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      • ryan says:

        Matt – maybe the data isn’t irrelevant, but the data to needs to be recognized as skewed. For me to suggest no statistical analysis should be done on Sonny is not helpful. I know I had stated “To conduct statistical analysis and draw any conclusions on Sonny Gray is flawed”, but it was within the context of not recognizing problems with the sample. I do appreciate the statistical work done by Fangraphs – thank you.

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    • KG says:

      It’s silly that we’re going around in circles… But that was NOT your only point; It was just your only point with merit. Your other points were the following set of inane inferences:

      “but it is a pretty big oversight to declare a pitcher an ace when”
      -Never was declared an ace by the author. Said to possess the capabilities of being a ‘fantasy workhorse’ and the ‘best chance’ among the current crop of young SPs to ‘become a Cliff Lee quality ace.’

      “To conduct statistical analysis and draw any conclusions on Sonny Gray is flawed.”
      -Undeniable, and asserted as such by the author. However, the premise that the data should be wholly ignored is the problem I have with your post.

      “maybe the data isn’t irrelevant, but the data to needs to be recognized as skewed”
      -The article recognized that the data was skewed by sample size. Your point that the sample size included some very poor offenses is a valid contribution.

      “I really like this site, but… You can throw the major league stats out the window…”
      -This is the reason I picked this fight with you. You have no right to demean the website and the article for making observations about Sonny Gray. Your wholesale nullification is the bone I’m picking here.

      Based on 60% of the posts authored by Ryans in this thread, there is a good chance that Ryan is a knucklehead. Undoubtedly polite, and apologetic for being so negative, but a knuckled head nonetheless!!

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      • Chicago Mark says:

        Well put KG. I like it all. And I’m still laughing at that last paragraph. I’m not being smart ass here. That’s good…..and funny.
        In your first sentance of that paragraph you used the word Ryans. Did you mean both Ryans? Because Another Ryans statement “You can thing your precious sonny gray is perfect if you want” is totally off base too. C’mon Another, Noone called him an ace and noone called him precious.
        I really don’t like how we insult and call each other names on this site. I even call Dave C’s followers minioins. It’s just not nice of any of us and I think it takes away from the discussions. But that’s another discussion for another time.
        There’s a lot of good data here. I’ll try to look at the Baseball Prospectus information Another recommends.
        Good luck to all.

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      • Chicago Mark says:

        Sorry, the word is minions. Not minioins.

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  4. FeslenR says:

    We’ll find out in 2014-full season-, but I believe in Sonny’s abilities and skills. Will he do as well as he did in short exposure? Probably not…and he WILL have his cold streaks, every pitcher does.

    By the way, I don’t think Brad was saying Sonny= Ace Material. He was just pointing out how magnificent he and his fellow rookies Salazar, Wacha did due mainly to low exposure and scouting reports.

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  5. another Ryan says:

    I agree with the above ryan, that not mentioning who the opponents were was one of the more glaring omissions from this piece. That affects all of the stats that were called out in this piece and I am confident they wouldn’t look nearly as spotless had he faced even average competition.

    Also another miss from this website is that this article evaluates a pitcher and is completely based on statistical analysis. Someone with a legitimate baseball eye would be able to tell you that Gray struggles with repeatability. This isn’t exactly a predicable factor on whether he will be good next year or not, but it certainly is worth mentioning when evaluating Gray’s future. Ubaldo Jimenez is a perfect example of how sound mechanics and repeatability are necessary. Baseball Prospectus pitching expert Doug Thorburn has had some excellent write-ups on Gray in the past and might be worth looking at.

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  6. Kris says:

    I actually think this brings up a rather nifty point. First, *graphs readers are some of the brightest folk out there, but there’s still a sizable chunk that honestly can’t grasp sample size. I still have trouble grasping sample size.

    Honestly, with 64 innings worth of work, you’re probably better off predicting the median, park adjusted, AL pitching line for Gray. A lot of people will immediately reach for “but K/9 stabilizes so quickly!” and sure, it does, when you look at everyone. In this case, a schedule such as Gray’s should probably be factored in. And the majority of the pieces out there that talk about stabilizing rates really are just noting when R’s getting to 50%.

    So while I agree with everyone who said, “It’d be a pretty boring article if we couldn’t use any statistics,” I also agree with the point, “He faced crappy competition and this should really be factored into the analysis”

    Personally, I find it annoying when people repeatedly mention sample size. As soon as the author mentions 64IP, we really shouldn’t need any kind of warning. But, at the same time, there shouldn’t be too many conclusions drawn from past data.

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  7. Jesse says:

    But sample size wasn’t the main point. If he pitched 5000 innings in a year and the 4500 of them were against miserable teams, it would be important to recognize that it is still skewed, would it not? This makes me think of the NY Giants this year (I’m a huge fan). Their defense “turned around” for a few games in a row. Sure, it’s a small sample size…however the problem wasn’t the SSS, but the fact that every game was against a backup QB. So when they played the big boys, they got smashed. Skew is something that is necessary to recognize when analyzing stats.

    At least you guys are fiery. I still have openings left in my Spring semester class. I always enjoy a rowdy bunch…

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    • KG says:

      Skew does need to be spoken for, but it’s a gray (LOLZ) area. I’m a Big Blue fan too. Is it possible that the defense did make strides AND the competition was bad? To the eye, adding Jon Beason really helped in run stuffing, Antrel Rolle started tackling better, and the defensive line showed some life. The defense didn’t look bad against Seattle, it hasn’t looked bad here today against the Lions either. The Chargers clicked on all cylinders- I thought the defense should have started blitzing to try to disrupt a very in sync Phil Rivers, but Fewell didn’t ask me for advice. The defense definitely benefited from seeing backup QBs, but I think it cuts the other way too- I think the defense did get better as well, and won’t get full credit for it, because they faced lesser opponents.

      Opposition is obviously not a control. These are major league hitters, and even lesser lineups are still very capable of hitting the ball and scoring runs on any given day, just like a playoff team like the Tigers can have a really bad outing. Any major league data is still going to be more credibly indicative than minor league data, right? I just think that this idea that Gray faced bad Major League lineups is more of a footnote than a complete debasement of the article, as team Ryan indicated.

      We’re not even really arguing about Gray’s potential here! We’re squabbling about how relevant the data is. It’s the most relevant data we have! I just don’t understand how it could be dismissed… unless… Ryan is actually Ryan Braun, thus his ‘tainted sample’ argument. It’s the only sample we have Mr Braun!

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  8. Matt says:

    I think the point (hopefully I’m not dumbing it down too much) was that in a short exposure to the bigs he showed some really good signs. Any pitcher that has 6 pitches (at least 2 plus pitches) and can pitch to the corners and bottom of the strike zone without walking too many people is going to be successful if they do it consistently. Sure better hitters are going to have better results on average, but regardless of who is in the batters box having good offerings and control are going to play well across the league.

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  9. AKA says:

    Strictly from behavior alone in this thread, I think that Ryan likely assumed that the article was stating that Gray is either a)definitely an ace already or b)definitely WILL be an ace, and when it was pointed out that the article didn’t actually say that, he simply dug in and fought the good fight instead of admitting he hadn’t read the article closely (or maybe at all).

    I don’t think the author needs to point out that several of the teams Gray pitched against were not great teams if he already pointed out that the MLB sample size was small. Since Ryan assumed that the article was claiming Gray was either already or definitely will be an ace (which it didn’t) and he was proven wrong on that point, he decided that instead of abandoning ship he would belabor the “poor competition” point. And Ryan, just because the postseason wasn’t mentioned in the article doesn’t mean it hasn’t been part of the author’s opinion-making process.

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  10. Eno Sarris says:

    There’s a lot of talk about how bad the sample size is, but from what I see, he threw 995 pitches against major league hitters, and there’s a decent amount of per-pitch analysis up there. Big fastball. Good curve, with some differences against lefties and righties. Needs to improve approach against lefties. These things we can say with some certitude, because we can look at a decent sample of 995 pitches.

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  11. Tony Starks says:

    Eno here to keep the peace

    Merry merry xmas y’all

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  12. Forrest Gumption says:

    ANY 23 year old who out-duels Verlander on the games most prominent stage = ace material, sample scale be damned.

    That playoff series alone will prove to have fortified Gray as a front-line starter, you can’t train for, or fake that experience. The fact that he was thrown into the fire so early, and chosen ahead of an ex-Cy Young winner with a 2.65 ERA to take the ball for game 5, shows he truly is ace material.

    Now if only the offense could support him.

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