Yesterday, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series devolved into a subtle form of 29 other teams’ favorite sport; Yankee bashing. But then again, it’s hard to deny that despite their free-spending ways, the New York infield has become a hospice of sorts. The Oakland Athletics on the other hand, have no such problems – routinely extracting immensely valuable contributions from young players and lesser names alike. 2013 was no exception; despite a lack of big names on the roster, the A’s went 96-66 and won the AL West once again, only to be bested in the playoffs by the Detroit Tigers for the second consecutive year. After two high-profile postseason duels with none other than Justin Verlander though, the name of Sonny Gray might soon alter Oakland’s relative lack of star status.
Ahead of Game 5 of the 2013 ALDS, Athletics manager Bob Melvin had a decision to make regarding his choice of starting pitcher; on the one hand, there was his nominal staff ace Bartolo Colon, who after a unexpectedly brilliant regular season had been hit around a little too easily by the Detroit Tigers in Game 1. On the other, there was the rookie Sonny Gray, whom despite having made only 10 starts at the big league level during the season, had out-dueled then-reigning AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander in Game 2, throwing eight frames of scoreless ball, and striking out nine. With Oakland’s season on the line, the former Vanderbilt Commodore was selected to take the mound; unfortunately, Miguel Cabrera cared not for the narrative.
That Melvin went with Gray in Oakland’s most important game in 2013 should surprise no one. That Gray threw an obvious mistake – a belt-high, middle-in fastball to Cabrera – at the worst possible time, should. Because up until that point, the 18th overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft had been dominant, his 10 starts down the stretch yielding a 2.85 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 24.8 K%, and 8.1 BB%. Furthermore, his SIERA (3.21) placed him 12th among pitchers who had thrown at least 60 innings, nestling him nicely in between some young aces you may have heard of – Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez. Yes, Sonny Gray is that good.
You’d be forgiven for doubting him heading into 2013 however. Even his manager recently admitted to doubts: “If you would have asked me, sitting right here (a year ago), if he would be pitching for us in the playoffs I would have said that’s a stretch. So when you look back, sure, it’s surprising.” After throwing just 22 innings after being drafted in 2011, the 5’11 Gray had a 4.14 ERA (with just a 5.90 K/9, and 1.70 K/BB ratio) at Double A Midland in 2012, causing him to fall off both Baseball America’s and MLB.com’s top 100 prospects lists. Promoted to begin 2013 at Triple A regardless of his prior issues, Gray flipped the switch; when Dan Straily started struggling, his 3.42 ERA, 2.74 FIP and 118 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings (20 GS) earned him a call up to The Show.
He never looked back, his impressive raw statistics backed up by a 2.70 FIP and 2.97 xFIP, suggesting his excellence wasn’t just a product of O.co Coliseum’s favorable dimensions. Per Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x data, Gray threw exactly 1200 pitches for the Athletics in his time up (including postseason), relying on his 93mph four seam fastball to generate a 53.6 GB%, and a filthy 80mph curveball to put batters away. The curve in fact, according to Fangraphs pitch values, ranked as most valuable in the game amongst starters with 60+ innings – besting Clayton Kershaw by 0.79 runs per hundred pitches – and induced a startling whiff rate of 15.31% from opposing batters. Just to keep hitters off balance, Gray mixed in a change 7.2% of the time too (though he can also turn to the sinker, cutter, and slider to form a six pitch arsenal – but used them very sparingly). With his control under… ahem, control – a future ace had officially emerged by seasons end.
As Melvin testified of the now 24 year old, “He did some amazing things in a short period of time.” Now it’s time for Gray to lead a deep Athletics pitching staff for a full season; he will presumably join Jarrod Parker and newly acquired Scott Kazmir at the top of the Athletics rotation, with A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Drew Pomeranz, and Tommy Milone competing for the remaining two spots. If all goes to plan, the young righty will be the first to take the ball for Oakland in the 2014 playoffs, and push them past their ALDS hump.
Maybe then, the public will finally recognize a name on the A’s roster as a true star.