As Sonny Gray stands on the mound, he is far from physically intimidating. However, he has extremely strong stuff, enough so that he should be able to instill some apprehension in opposing batters.
To be successful in 2018, Gray has to buy into himself.
In 2017, Gray showed fans in Oakland that was closer to the form they witnessed in his first two big league seasons, as he worked to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2016 season. Before the trade to New York last season, Gray was pitching to a 3.43 ERA after finding a groove in mid-June.
Gray lacked run support once he donned pinstripes, but he looked to be the pitcher the Yankees hoped for after trading some highly touted prospects. In his first eight starts, he registered a tidy 2.66 ERA, allowing batters a measly .206 batting average. Gray struck out 49 batters in 50 2/3 innings and walked 17 (3.0 BB/9). On the downside, Gray allowed seven homers during the stretch, which was one fewer than he allowed in his first 16 starts of the season.
Somehow, he lost it in his final regular three starts, allowing 12 earned runs in 14 2/3 innings. Gray coughed up four home runs and walked 10 batters in the span. Gray's confidence dwindled, and it carried into the American League Division Series when he allowed three runs in 3 1/3 innings with four more walks.
Considering he hadn't been on the mound in 11 days, Gray threw well in the ALCS, but even in that game in which he allowed one run, he didn't seem to be all that assured he would succeed.
The issue: Gray doesn't seem to understand how good his stuff is, and how much better he could be if he fully trusted it. He has the reputation of being a thinking pitcher, and we witnessed it firsthand. Trying to outsmart batters is not a bad thing, however Gray, even when things were going his way, often seemed to get into his own head instead of outwitting his opponents.
Gray's stuff didn't suffer during these circumstances, but his nibbling around the plate became detrimental to the command of the pitches.
The 28-year-old seemed to get out of sync with his catchers over the last few starts of the season, including the postseason. Gray's off-speed pitches are best when they are grabbing dirt just as the ball is crossing the plate. He would never admit to it, but there is a chance that he became uncomfortable with the catchers' ability to stop pitches in the areas he needed/wanted to throw, which caused a spiraling effect. In his last five starts, including the postseason, Gray walked 16 batters, threw four wild pitches, and hit two batters.
Gray was never quick to the plate, but it got worse than ever for him in 2017. If the league institutes a pitch clock, Gray is going to have a hard time with the 20 seconds he has to release the ball as he averaged 27.9 seconds per pitch with the A's in 2017, and then added another full second on average with the Yankees. This mental hiccup is going to be a factor for Gray, and something pitching coach Larry Rothschild is going to have to tackle with the right-hander in the spring.
As for Gray's repertoire, he relies most on a mix of two-seam and four-seam fastballs, of which batters hit .247 and .252 respectively in 2017. Gray adds a plus-slider and curve, which held batters to a .157 average and .196 average respectively. He allowed 13 of his 19 homers off the combination of fastballs.
Gray strives to work down and in on both right-handed and left-handed batters. Like any pitcher, when Gray sits in the middle of the strike zone, exit velocity and success against him peaks because he is not overpowering anyone in that area. He had positive results when hitting the upper and outer parts of the strike zone as well, though again, losing pitches intended to those areas tend to fall in a hitter's happy zone.
What does all of this say about Gray as he enters the new season?
First and foremost, he has to use spring training to find comfort with the catchers. Coming in and pitching to new catchers midseason is difficult for both parties. The six weeks of spring training should benefit Gray and his backstops.
The combination of Gray's ability to refrain from nibbling around the lower edge of the plate, and gaining stronger command of this fastballs are necessary to his ability to rediscover the strong 14-start stretch he managed in the middle of the summer last season (90 IP, 2.10 ERA, .188 BAA, .577 OPS). If he cannot do this, expect home runs to continue to be an issue, and the chance he can pitch through the sixth inning with regularity will decrease.
I believe Gray will have an easier time with the catcher's but, I also feel that his nature on the mound is not going to adjust as much as necessary to turn in an elite season. This will lead to significantly strong periods of performance, but with dramatic clunkers mixed in when he doesn't have complete feel for his pitches.
All of this brings me to an estimate for Gray of 170 innings, 3.80 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 1.2 HR/9, 2.9 BB/9 and 8.0 K/9 in 2018. Those numbers are fine for a No. 3 starter, especially for a team expected to score plenty of runs in 2018.