The numbers continue to look bad for New York Yankees pitcher Sonny Gray. But there is a simple move that can get him back on the right track.
Sonny Gray has pitched terribly for the New York Yankees this year and needs to be demoted to the bullpen. It’s just the reality of the situation. Not only that, a trip to the ‘pen might do him some good.
The 28-year-old righty has gone 5-7 with a career-worst 5.85 ERA in 2018. His 1.58 WHIP is also a career-low and as the Bronx Bombers seek to keep pace with the hated Boston Red Sox in the AL East, an ineffective Gray is the last thing manager Aaron Boone needs.
As Katie Sharp of The Athletic tweeted Friday night, after the righty posted another awful outing, Gray joined a club that isn’t exactly flattering.
Yankees Back-to-Back Starts of 2 1/3 IP or fewer, 5+ ER and 6+ Hits allowed:
Sonny Gray (2018)
Chien-Ming Wang (2009)
Jeff Johnson (1991)
Ed Whitson (1985)
Jim Bouton (1962)
— Katie Sharp (@ktsharp) July 7, 2018
It only gets worse from there. Gray is 0-3 with an unacceptable 12.27 ERA in his last three starts. He is now 9-14 since being acquired from the Oakland A’s nearly a year ago and whatever pitcher Sonny Gray was before, GM Brian Cashman is surely wondering what happened to that individual.
What's the problem?
Now, as easy as it would be to demote Gray to the bullpen until he sorts himself out, it is important that we first diagnose the problem. Looking at some of the deeper metrics, it’s quite clear Gray hasn’t been himself in 2018.
One stat that stands out is Gray’s walks per nine innings (BB/9). He’s sitting at 4.04 BB/9 on the season, nearly a full walk above his career mark of 3.05. His groundball rate (GB%) is also unusually low for him at 47.7%, south of his career GB% of 53.2%. Gray’s batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is also an astronomical .332, but it isn’t just bad luck that’s ailing him.
Rather, Gray’s problems can be traced to one key issue: decreased use of his fastball. He threw it 55.1% of the time with Oakland and New York last year, but this year could not be more different. Gray has only thrown his fastball 33.5% of the time in 2018. Next, after that are his cutter (23.6%), which Fangraphs shows he didn’t even throw last year, and his curve (20.1%).
Combine that with small increases in his line drive and flyball rates, plus his hard contact allowed going up to 35.6% from 28% last year, and Gray is clearly having problems commanding his secondary pitches. Sure, being more aggressive with his fastball could also help whatever is ailing him, but secondary pitch command is equally important.
Thus, by going into the bullpen for a short time and sorting out any and all issues could be just what the doctor ordered for Gray. After all, it worked for a Yankee of old!
Look to the Moose
I look at Gray’s problems in 2018 and think back to 2007 when former Yankee and (hopefully) future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina was having a season uncharacteristic of himself. After seeing his ERA hang in the low three to mid-four range during his tenure in pinstripes, Mussina was having a 2007 season to forget.
Now, before we dive deeper, here are Mussina’s season totals. He went 11-10 with a career-worst 5.15 ERA and 1.46 WHIP. His K/9 fell to 5.39 from 7.84 in 2006. His BABIP skyrocketed to .340 on the year. Yes, Mussina used his fastball just 49.2% of the time compared to 51.7% the year before, but that’s not enough of a dropoff to cause as big a dropoff in performance as he had.
Mussina’s problems in 2007 can actually be traced back to increased line drive rate and hard contact, exactly what seems to be ailing Gray this year, and the Moose’s experience is a prime example of why Gray should be bullpen ‘bound.
Mussina had a stretch in August when he went 0-3 with a horrific 18.58 ERA over the course of three starts. In that stretch, he twice failed to get past the third inning. With New York in the thick of the race for the AL East, manager Joe Torre thus made the decision to put Mussina in the bullpen.
And Mussina did make one appearance out of the bullpen, pitching 3.2 innings of mop-up duty in a 7-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Sept. 3. He allowed just two earned runs, though, then rejoined the starting rotation on September 12.
It just so happens that after his brief bullpen demotion, Mussina went 3-0 with a 3.34 ERA in his final four starts. It just goes to show that sometimes, stepping away from starting can be the answer. Given how much Sonny Gray has struggled this year, and how similar his struggles are to those of Mussina in 2007, this is an avenue that Boone should pursue, and soon.
As much as this article may paint him as such, Sonny Gray is not a bad pitcher. Like Mussina in 2007, he’s having some issues commanding his secondary pitches. Considering he is a pitcher who relies heavily on changing speeds, this is a problem that needs to be solved soon.
Granted, Gray’s next scheduled start is Wednesday against the last place Baltimore Orioles. He’s 2-0 against the Birds this year, but management needs to go into this game assuming he will struggle. It’s just the sad reality.
And if Gray does struggle again, he must go to the bullpen. He’s just run out of chances at that point. The Red Sox aren’t slowing down and every game counts, and it’s unfair for the Yankees to lose every fifth day just because Gray can’t seem to sort out his problems on the mound.
Moreover, if Mike Mussina’s story is any indicator, pitching in some low-pressure situations in relief could actually benefit Sonny Gray. At this stage of the game, the Yankees owe it to themselves to try and fix him by any means necessary. If that means demoting him, so be it.