Sonny Gray looking for ways to avoid his big-inning troubles

Sonny Gray looking for ways to avoid his big-inning troubles

OAKLAND — There are some starts where Sonny Gray would take a bad first inning and chalk it up as a mulligan, content to move on with the belief that things will be better next time out.

After Tuesday night’s outing, he wasn’t letting himself off the hook so easily. Fielding questions from reporters about a five-run first that doomed the A’s in an 8-4 loss to Houston, Gray clearly was bothered by his inability to shut off the Astros’ rally at just one run after he coaxed a double play from Carlos Correa. Brian McCann, Yuli Gurriel and Alex Bregman followed with run-scoring hits as Gray allowed the most runs by an Oakland pitcher in the first inning this season.

“I don’t know, I just kind of got away from the game plan a little bit and started to lose some balls over the middle a little bit more,” Gray said. “After that, I was able to battle through a couple innings and get through five, but I really dug us a hole there in the first. And against a team like that and an offense like that, to give them a five-spot in the first, it’s tough on the rest of the guys.”

Gray held the Astros off the board over his final four innings, so there was that silver lining in regard to his start. But the tone of Gray’s comments after the game brought some flashbacks to 2016, when the right-hander spent the season searching for answers to his struggles on the mound.

He’s made some mechanical adjustments over last year. Overall his stuff is better. Gray feels it is, and it’s clear to those who have watched him. But the big inning still haunts him, and once things start sliding backwards in an inning, he has trouble putting the brakes on.

“For numerous starts, I’ve been good for four or five innings and then have one inning where everything’s kind of escalated,” Gray said. “Going forward, I’m going to have to figure this out, whether it’s getting off the mound and slowing myself down … And a lot of times it’s been with two outs, so I’ve gotta find a way to shut the inning down when I get to two outs.”

“Obviously he just was not making the pitches he wanted to,” catcher Stephen Vogt added. “For the most part, they weren’t bad pitches. They were just up and they jumped on him pretty good.”

Since returning from a season-opening stint on the disabled list for a strained lat muscle, Gray’s ERA is 4.84 over 10 starts. He’s racked up impressive strikeout numbers, which has put him near the top of the list of starting pitchers mentioned in the trade rumor mill. But contending teams who are scouting Gray, and you can very much count the Astros among the teams that could make a play for him, will want to see better results than Tuesday’s if they’re to part with the kind of return package the A’s will want for the 2015 All-Star.

That’s the subplot each time Gray takes the mound between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.

“My stuff is there,” Gray said. “Moving forward it’s gonna be a mentality thing. I’ve got to figure it out.”

MLB rumors: A's, Yankees talked Sonny Gray deal, but no trade imminent


MLB rumors: A's, Yankees talked Sonny Gray deal, but no trade imminent

It could be Sonny again in Oakland, but there's reportedly still a long way to go. 

The A's reached out to the Yankees about acquiring right-handed pitcher Sonny Gray, "but there is no present momentum in talks," MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Friday. 

Last week, Fancred's Jon Heyman reported the A's were interested in re-acquiring Gray, who pitched in Oakland from 2013 to 2017 before being traded to New York. As Morosi noted, they've had no problem bringing back former pitchers, and there's good reason that a return to Oakland could bring the best out of Gray.

For one thing, he was a much better pitcher away from Yankee Stadium since the Bronx Bombers acquired him at the trade deadline in 2017. Gray went 6-7 with a 6.55 ERA and 1.70 WHIP in 88.0 innings in the Bronx. By contrast, he was 9-9 with a 2.84 ERA and 1.18 WHIP on the road. In 386.0 innings at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum with the A's, Gray was 25-20 with a 3.50 ERA and 1.17 WHIP.

Injuries to promising young starters such as Sean Manaea and A.J. Puk forced the A's to use a patchwork starting rotation down the stretch last season, and the team relied on a bullpenning strategy en route to its first playoff appearance in four years. As a result, A's executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane identified starting pitching as the team's top priority this offseason.

[ROSS: How Patrick Corbin's contract could affect A's starting pitching market]

[MORE: Did Nathan Eovaldi's playoff heroics put him out of A's price range?]

Re-acquiring Gray would maintain the approach that kept the rotation afloat last season but offer the A's much more upside than bringing back Cahill and Anderson. With the Yankees actively looking to trade Gray, it makes a lot of sense for both teams.

Based on Morosi's report, it sounds like they'll have to start picking up the phone, though. 

How Patrick Corbin's contract could affect A's starting pitching market

How Patrick Corbin's contract could affect A's starting pitching market

Patrick Corbin probably won't be signing with Oakland, but his contract should still be of interest to A's fans.

The 29-year-old left-hander is arguably the top pitcher available in free agency, meaning his contract could set the market for everyone else.

Corbin dominated hitters in 2018, striking out 246 in 200 innings. He posted a 3.15 ERA and 1.05 WHIP despite pitching his home games at Chase Field in Arizona, known as a hitter's park.

Corbin is projected to get somewhere in the range of five years for $100 million. Fellow left-hander Dallas Keuchel is also expected to get that type of money. However, we won't know the exact market for starters until Corbin and Keuchel get their offers.

After the top two starters, there is a slight drop off to veterans like J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton, and Nathan Eovaldi. Their offers will also depend, at least in part, on Corbin's contract. There is then a trickle-down effect through the rest of the available free agent starting pitchers.

[ROSS: Did Nathan Eovaldi's playoff heroics put him out of A's price range?]

That means even if the A's don't sign Corbin, his contract could alter the price they pay for their own free agent targets. Oakland could conceivably pursue names like Wade Miley, Tyson Ross, and Clay Buchholz.

Of course, the A's have their own free agent starting pitchers to consider. Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill, and Brett Anderson were crucial to Oakland's success last season. Jackson and Cahill, in particular, significantly increased their value moving forward.

But it all starts at the top with Corbin. Stay tuned.

Editor's note: This week across the NBC Sports Regional Networks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at some of the top free agents in baseball. Thursday is dedicated to free agent pitcher Patrick Corbin.