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2019 Season in Review: Sonny Gray


2019 was a pivotal season for starting pitcher Sonny Gray, both from a real-game and fantasy perspective. The 2018 season turned out to be a complete dud for Gray, who, in his first full season with the Yankees, posted a poor 4.90 ERA and 1.50 WHIP over 130 ⅓ innings pitched. With a move to a new team and new environment, 2019 offered Gray a chance to rebound and prove that he could still be an effective pitcher.

Gray not only proved himself capable, but thrived with the Reds; he compiled an 11-8 record with a stellar 2.87 ERA, tied his career-low in WHIP at 1.08, and racked up a career-high 29% strikeout rate over 175 ⅓ IP. Gray’s performance made him one of fantasy’s best bounce-back players and set him up as an intriguing option for 2020.

How did Gray turn things around to such a degree, and can he replicate his 2019 season? Let’s take a closer look at his performance from last season and what it could mean for him and potential fantasy owners this season.

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From Weak Contact to Less Contact

There are a few things that stand out in terms of Gray’s underlying metrics, most of which seem to have stemmed from a change in his pitch mix. Gray has been known throughout his career as a pitch-to-contact groundball pitcher, relying primarily on a fastball-sinker combination with a career contact rate of 77.2%. This profile shifted in 2019 to that of a swing-and-miss pitcher. For comparison, Gray threw 57% fastballs and 39.5% breaking balls (curveball and slider) in 2018 but threw 46.5% fastballs and 45% breaking balls in 2019.

The change in pitch usage proved to be a great move for Gray. Both his fastball and breaking balls have a ton of spin on them (top-10 percent in baseball), but his fastball has never been overpowering at 93.3 MPH. His breaking balls, however, were quite effective due to the spin on them; Gray generated a 12.1% and 18.8% swinging-strike rate with his curveball and slider. Consequently, Gray’s contact numbers dropped (his 73.1% was a career-low) along with his hard-hit rate (33.3%) while his strikeout numbers jumped. His 3.97 SIERA suggests that Gray did get lucky in 2019, but his batted-ball profile, combined with his decreased contact, seems like a recipe for success. 

The interesting thing here is that Gray didn’t change his pitch mix because he developed a new pitch; instead, he merely threw his best swing-and-miss pitches more often while relying less on throwing fastballs to induce contact. While there is only one season’s worth of data for Gray’s new method, it was one of his best, suggesting good things to come in 2020.

 

New Team, Familiar Faces

The other set of circumstances to consider for Gray beyond his numbers were all the facets of leaving the Yankees to pitch on a new team, specifically the Reds. Many players have struggled playing in New York due to the atmosphere and relentless spotlight, so it was not necessarily shocking to see Gray perform the way he did. 

However, there couldn’t have been a better team for him to go to than the Reds. It has been documented that Gray grew up as a Reds fan and has been adopted by the fan base, rather than shunned like he was with the Yankees. Further, Gray’s move to the Reds allowed him to reunite with his college pitching coach, Derek Johnson. The relationship between the two seemed to have a positive effect.

It is difficult to measure exactly how much these conditions affected Gray. That being said, baseball is very much a mental game, so having a level of familiarity with your coaches, team, and city should not be ignored. Gray seems to have found his comfort zone in Cincinnati, much to the benefit of the Reds and fantasy owners.

 

2020 Forecast

In sum, Gray had an incredible bounceback season in 2019 and had encouraging underlying metrics to back it up. He threw more breaking pitches, which led to less contact, and the contact he did allow was just as encouraging, if not more so than what he has allowed in his career previously. Even if his ERA does regress some, his new strikeout numbers should make up for that. He is back with a familiar pitching coach and in a city that supports him and has a new method of pitching that works. With a team that has made some offseason moves to bolster their roster, Gray should be in a position to pitch well and earn some wins in 2020.

He is currently being drafted at about pick 102 overall, which ranks him as the 34th pitcher off the board. This puts him in the range of starters such as Corey Kluber, Shohei Ohtani, Mike Soroka, and Carlos Carrasco. Most of these pitchers have had success previously but are recovering from injuries or setbacks in 2019. Comparatively, Gray’s stock is clearly trending up from last season. As such, pick 102 seems like a reasonable spot for Gray, with upside closer to pick 90 if he can get closer to 200 IP.

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