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Sonny Gray says Yankees forced him to throw more sliders

Cincinnati Reds Photo Day

GOODYEAR, AZ - FEBRUARY 19: Sonny Gray #54 of the Cincinnati Reds poses for a portrait at the Cincinnati Reds Player Development Complex on February 19, 2019 in Goodyear, Arizona. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

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Reds starter Sonny Gray had a disastrous 2018 campaign, finishing with a 4.90 ERA across 23 starts and seven relief appearances for the Yankees. Perhaps the most obvious change-of-scenery candidate, the Yankees traded Gray to the Reds in January.

Gray spoke to The Athletic’s Eno Sarris, saying that the Yankees forced him to throw more sliders. “They love sliders. Sliders are a great pitch. The numbers say slider is a good pitch, but you might not realize how many [bad] counts you’re getting in while throwing all those sliders. They wanted me to be [Masahiro] Tanaka and I’m way different from him,” Gray explained.

Gray added, “I can’t command my slider that well. I want to throw my slider in the dirt with two strikes, and that’s about it. I don’t have that type of slider, like Tanaka’s slider. His slider, the catcher will catch it, and the batter will swing and miss. If I get a swing and miss, the catcher is blocking it in the dirt. When I try to throw sliders for a strike, I get around it and it’s just a s–tty spinning pitch. I don’t know how people throw sliders for strikes that are still tight, good pitches. I’m at 2-0 and I’m throwing a slider, and either I’m throwing a s–tty slider in the zone, or I’m yanking it into the dirt and it’s 3-0 and I’m screwed either way.”

Brooks Baseball doesn’t actually show that Gray threw many more sliders, nor that hitters performed markedly better against them.

  • 2014: 10.75% of pitches, .140 average, .215 slugging
  • 2015: 16.7%, .128, .250
  • 2016: 11.2%, .177, .412
  • 2017: 15.3%, .137, .209
  • 2018: 15.9%, .198, .341

Based on the way Gray spoke, we would expect 2018 to show outliers across the board with his sliders, but we don’t. Hitters certainly hit for a higher average and slugged better, but it was still better than his 2016 performance when he was with the Athletics.

It is worth noting that there may be a difference in pitch classification between what Gray actually threw, or thinks he threw, and what Brooks Baseball says he threw.

While we didn’t see a marked increase in two-ball sliders, we did see a noticeable jump, percentage-wise in three-ball sliders.

  • 2014: 55/518 sliders (10.6%) in two-ball counts; 22/270 (8.1%) sliders in three-ball counts
  • 2015: 98/493 (19.9%); 20/221 (9.0%)
  • 2016: 44/316 (13.9%); 12/169 (7.1%)
  • 2017: 93/484 (19.2%); 15/250 (6.0%)
  • 2018: 73/408 (17.9%); 25/189 (13.2%)

That being said, we only saw gray throw 10 more three-ball sliders in total than he did in 2017, and only five more than he did in 2015.

Gray mentioned that throwing more sliders affected the quality of his curve. He said, “I didn’t throw as many curveballs, and that’s when it started to morph and lose shape.”

According to Brooks Baseball, Gray threw more curves in 2018 than he did in 2015, ’16, and ’17. Curves accounted for 23.7 percent of pitches last year, 14.5 percent in 2017, 16.4 percent in 2016, and 16.7 percent in 2015. Curves were 27 percent of his pitches in 2014.

Brooks Baseball doesn’t even see much of a difference movement-wise. In terms of horizontal movement (in inches), Gray’s curve was between 8.37 and 9.25 before 2018. Last year, it was 9.44 inches. The difference amounts to centimeters. In terms of vertical movement, accounting for gravity, Gray’s curve again was not much different. He averaged 46.9 inches of vertical movement. In 2015, he averaged 45 inches. 46.3 inches in 2016. 48.2 inches in 2017.

It is reasonable, actually, to conclude that Gray might have been done in by the Yankees’ hitter-friendly ballpark. Gray held the opposition to a .614 OPS in 15 games (296 plate appearances) on the road but yielded a .932 OPS in 15 games (286 PA) at home. Gray has never had home/away splits like that.

  • 2014: .683 OPS allowed at home, .564 OPS allowed on the road (.119 difference)
  • 2015: .583/.597 (-.014 difference)
  • 2016: .814/.824 (-.010 difference)
  • 2017: .644/.697 (-.053 difference)
  • 2018: .932/.614 (.318 difference)

The big difference was power. Gray gave up 11 of his 14 home runs at home. He also had a pitiful 45/35 K/BB ratio at home compared to 78/22 on the road. Perhaps the dimensions of the stadium or the pressure of pitching in New York got to him. It may be more mentally satisfying to blame his forgettable 2018 on pitch selection rather than a mental block at home. If that’s what Gray needs to move forward, then all the more power to him. Believe what you need to believe to get back on track. The data shows, however, that pitch selection doesn’t explain why he performed so poorly last year.

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