Last year, despite multiple preseason voices screaming about the regression monster, Sonny Gray was going as a top 20 starting pitcher. It was understandable, albeit short-sighted, that fantasy baseball owners would like Gray heading into 2016. He was a 26 year old pitcher with a groundball heavy profile and a plus ballpark, who had a 2.88 ERA with a league averagish K% of 7.68 per 9 innings through 491 career innings.
There are some pitchers that just know to beat their peripherals season after season and plenty of fantasy owners made the bet that Sonny Gray would continue to do that. Plus, it’s not like the peripherals were unkind – 3.36 FIP, 3.49 xFIP for his career through and including 2015. Gray seemed incredibly safe to the untrained eye.
Owners that did bet on Gray suffered a heavy loss. Gray pitched just 117 innings and was terrible during that span with a 5.69 ERA, which was worse than his bad peripherals – 4.67 FIP and 4.13 xFIP. Gray’s K rate dipped down to 7.23 K/9 and the walks rose (3.23 BB/9). For the first time in his career, the home run really bit him – 1.38 HR/9 doubling his previous career rate of 0.66 HR/9.
Gray’s stock has taken a deserved tumble as he is now the 55th SP off the board, going in the neighborhood of several enticing potential breakout arms – James Paxton, Carlos Rodon, Aaron Nola, Vincent Velasquez. Is he worth that investment? Is he worth passing on that upside? Let’s examine.
I think we can safely say that while his pre-2016 home run rate is history unless the league-wide power surge was a total anomaly, it is unlikely that Gray will suffer from a HR/9 rate of 1.38 again given his profile, past homer suppression and his home ballpark. If we use xFIP, which would reduce his homers down to a league average rate, Gray’s 2016 performance becomes more tolerable, albeit not promising – 4.13 xFIP.
Where else can we find some gains for Sonny Gray? The .319 BABIP is much higher than what he did throughout his career (.278 BABIP on average). However, this was always a major point of contention with Gray – as a groundball pitcher, the BABIP should have been higher. In further support of that contention, Gray may have deserved the change in luck even moreso than in past years – his Hard% rose 8.5% to 33.6%.
The peripheral already strips out batted ball luck and defense, but it is worth mentioning that Oakland was the worst defensive team in baseball by defensive runs saved. Although I do not expect that the current configuration of their roster is going to be some otherworldly defensive unit, it is more likely than not that they will improve just based upon sheer randomness.
Another factor to consider in Gray’s terrible season, his LOB% was an atrocious 63.9% down approximately 11% from his career average. It is also bottom 5 in all of baseball among pitchers with at least 100 innings.
With respect to his skills, the one major difference is that hitters swung less against Gray and, in particular, they swung less outside the zone. Much like Dallas Keuchel, Gray is dependent on soft contact and generating swings at pitches outside the strike zone. He struggled in both aspects last year.
As you can see, there are some areas where bad luck was the issue with Gray, but everything really seems tied together. The big issue is the home runs. I would place Gray squarely at 0.90 HR/9 and that is spot on with where the FanGraphs Depth Charts and Steamer have him (Zips has him at 0.96 and the FANS have him at 0.97). At that rate, with some regression to his normal skill level and some luck regression on batted balls due to increasing soft contact and improved defense behind him, I think Gray will come close to the projection below.
Before the projection though, I want to make clear that in most circumstances, I am taking the upside play over Gray – meaning Paxton, Rodon, Nola and Velasquez are all above him on my board. If I needed less risk and steady innings, I might grab Gray over that quartet. Remember, Gray is not without some upside himself – see 2013-2015.
My projection for Sonny Gray: 193 IP, 3.68 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 160 Ks, 11 Ws.