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2017 Player Profiles: Sonny Gray

After an injury-plagued, forgettable 2016, Gray will be back in 2017 looking for redemption. Will he find it?

Oakland Athletics v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

If you want to catch up on all the previous 2017 player profiles, check out my archive here.

While many in Chicago are still recovering from the celebration, I continue to press on in my quest to preview key players for the 2017 fantasy baseball season. Today’s target is Mr. Sonny Gray of the Oakland Athletics. This high-sock-wearing right-hander endured an awful season in 2016. He put up 117 innings with a 5.69 ERA. His xFIP was a much more reasonable 4.13, but still much worse than his career marks.

The real challenge in evaluating Gray’s 2016 is how much blame to put on his injury issues and how much was expected regression after some good fortune in previous years. How much was skill-related and how much was injury?

Let’s just start with the raw stats and go from there. After three seasons with well below-average BABIPs, he gave up a 0.319 BABIP in 2016 (27th highest among all starters). His walk rate was right in line with his 2013 and 2014 rates. He had a career low in K%, though, at just 18.2%. That’s a 2% drop from his previous low. His WHIP went from a great 1.08 in 2015 to 1.5! That is certainly an issue. His batting average against went from 0.216 to 0.286. Again, not great.

After stranding about 75% of runners in 2013-2015, he stranded just 64% in 2016, which was the sixth lowest among all starters. That is usually just a result of very bad luck, especially when it is to such an extreme. To add to that bad luck, he allowed a 17.5% HR/FB ratio (#11 among starters), an 8% jump up from his career average. His ground ball rate and pop-up rate were both the same as usual. We can confidently say he had bad luck with stranding runners and home runs and can’t expect that to be that bad in 2017.

However, that doesn’t address the drop in Ks, or the up-tick in hits (outside of the BABIP issues). His drop in Ks isn’t surprising when you consider that his SwStr% fell from 9.7% (above average) to 8% (well below average). His first-pitch strike % was even at a career-high 61.5% and it couldn’t make up for the lack of bite in his pitches. All six of his pitches saw a drop in swinging strike rate, with the slider and curve taking the biggest hits.

Let’s look for indicators that his injuries may have been affecting him, starting with velocity:

You can see that his early 2016 velocities were about the same as his late 2015 ones. Maybe that means he was dealing with some soreness back then as well. Sure enough, after a short break in early July due to an illness, he put up a 17.7% K%, a 4.24 FIP, and...a 9.2% SwStr%. Darn. I guess there isn’t much there. For some 2017 optimism, Gray’s one inning start in September this year resulted in his second best velocity of the season.

Ok, if velocity wasn’t really the problem, how about vertical release point? If that starts to falter, it can be a sign that injuries are taking their toll. Let’s take a look:

This, to me, indicates a general problem with mechanics. I cut off 2013 because it didn’t fit well on the graph, but it was a fairly normal year for him. 2014 and 2016, however, are examples of something no pitcher should be doing. If your vertical release point is changing that much, you are in real danger of losing your command or injuring yourself. To make matters worse, in 2016 his changeup got farther and farther from the release point of his other pitches, making it easy to identify for hitters. The whole point of a changeup is deception, so if you take that away, it is worthless.

BJ Maack at Fangraphs had this to say after Gray’s second DL stint of the season, for “right extensor muscle soreness”:

I am sensing the beginning of the end for Sonny Gray, unless he makes some mechanical adjustments. He was just pulled from Saturday’s game against the Cubs with “right extensor muscles soreness.” So much ambiguity here. Couple this with his May right trapezius DL stint and you have to start asking some questions. There has to be some sort of mechanical issue going on for such injuries to occur back-to-back. Such brilliant potential is now at risk.

Now, that is pretty ominous and maybe too pessimistic, but it shows the seriousness of Gray’s mechanics problems. For a hint of light at the end of the tunnel, his release point in that last start of the season was right up there with his 2015 release points. Unfortunately, it is just one inning of work, so it’s hard to know for sure if he has fixed anything. I will be keeping a close eye on Gray’s velocity, mechanics, and release point next spring to see if he is fully healthy and if he has made any significant changes.

For more analysis of Sonny Gray’s 2016 issues, I suggest this fine piece. That piece suggests that his fastball’s lack of late life was the cause of his struggles. However, several commenters noted that his movement hadn’t really changed and that his spin rate was also about the same.

Gray’s hard hit rate was a bad 33.6% after years of 25% rates (which is very, very good). He used to be so good at limiting hard contact. His 2016 average exit velocity allowed of 90.8 mph was the 13th highest among all starters. Clearly, he was giving up lots of hard contact.

Wrap Up

Ok, let’s wind this down. Gray had two DL stints in 2016 for a trapezius muscle injury and a strained forearm, both on his right side. When he wasn’t on the DL, he was much worse than in previous seasons. The good news: he was hit with terrible luck, with a very high BABIP allowed, a very high HR/FB%, and a very low strand rate. If all three of those revert to league average next year (no guarantee), he would see a big drop in WHIP and ERA from that alone. His vertical release point varied all year, adding to his problems (likely a result of his soreness). His velocity also suffered, likely diminishing his fastballs.

I think his 2016 was due mostly to a combo of injury and bad luck, that compounded his issues. He still needs to tweak his mechanics to improve his health and keep his fastball’s command, velocity, and movement. If he does that, maintains his velocity and release point, and has better luck I could see him doing this:

3.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 7.5 K/9

He is going to be fascinating to value in 2017 with his performance and injury issues. You might be able to snag him for a bargain in drafts, but he certainly does come with risk. If he doesn’t tweak his mechanics, he could easily spend months on the DL again. Tschus!