By: Chris Larson
About a week ago, the New York Yankees announced that then starting pitcher, Sonny Gray, would be moving to the bullpen. It was a move that was, both welcomed by the fans of the New York Yankees as well as Gray himself, who has struggled ever since he arrived under the big lights of Yankee Stadium, last July, prior to the non-waiver trade deadline.
Part of the reasoning behind the move was the fact that the Yankees acquired, Lance Lynn, from the Minnesota Twins prior to this year's non-waiver trade deadline and needed to create a spot for Lynn in the starting rotation, but that wasn't the only thing that this decision was based off of. Another was because Sonny Gray appeared to have lost so much control as a starting pitcher and looked nothing like the guy, Brian Cashman, thought he was when he acquired him from the Oakland A's.
Consider for a moment Gray's ERA as a starting pitcher this year with the New York Yankees. Over, 103 and 2/3 innings of work or 21 games, Gray posted a 5.40 ERA with a career high 1.52 WHIP and a career high 4.0 walks-per-9 rate. After all, during the five seasons that Gray pitched for the Oakland A's, he put up a 3.42 ERA over 705 IP and had an average WHIP, over that span, of 1.20 along with an average walks-per-9 rate of 2.9. Based on those numbers alone, it's fair to see why a move to the bullpen was in order and necessary for Sonny Gray as well as the New York Yankees.
Gray, who will turn 29 this coming November, is in the midst of his prime right now and should be blowing away hitters like scouts once saw, when the Oakland A's, drafted him during the 1st round of the 2011 Amateur Draft. As a former Vanderbilt University guy, Sonny Gray had an outstanding knack for throwing gas at the end of games coming out of Vanderbilt's bullpen and that's what originally attracted scouts to him. Furthermore, prior to being drafted in 2011, Gray was a starting pitcher with Vanderbilt and recorded a 24.3 strikeout percentage during that season alone, which led many scouts to envision him, someday leading a big league staff similar to the role of Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, or Chris Sale.
While those numbers were certainly trendy at the time and the sky was basically the limit for Sonny Gray, there really hasn't been one season during his career where you could make the argument that Gray took that next step into the elite class of starting pitchers. You could potentially argue that 2015, which so far was a career year for Sonny Gray, was the point where he could take that next step, but after recording a 2.73 ERA over 208 innings of work that year, he followed up in 2016 by recording a 5.69 ERA over 117 IP with a 4.67 FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage). Granted, Gray was placed on the DL twice that year, first with a strained right trapezius muscle and then with a strained right forearm, which certainly impacted his performance overall.
However, since that time, Gray has not finished with an ERA below 3 and appears as though he was starting to take a step backward instead of forward as a starting pitcher especially this year. Following some of the struggles he had last season, the New York Yankees tried to help him make some changes to his delivery and it is apparent based on his pitch type chart since being acquired by New York. Take a look at the chart below as an illustration:
As you can see from the chart, Gray changed his mechanics dramatically from last year to this year when it comes to throwing his fastball a lot less often (55.1% of the time last season compared to 34.4% of the time this year), incorporated a cutter into his pitch repertoire, and is relying on his curveball more (23.4% this year compared to 13.9% last season). In addition, Gray is throwing his changeup almost 10% less (14.9% last season versus 4.1% of the time) this year. Based on that information, it's fair to say that the Yankees saw some tweaks that they needed to help Gray with between the conclusion of last year and the start of this season, but unfortunately, those adjustments haven't quite worked well enough to the point where Sonny Gray can take the mound every fifth day and give the Yankees exactly what they need out of their starting pitchers, which is why the Yankees have taken the smart route and decided to hit the reset button by putting Gray into the bullpen.
Last night was the first night that Gray pitched out of the bullpen and it went as well as anyone could have asked for. Gray pitched 3 innings, gave up 1 hit along with 1 walk, and recorded 4 strikeouts. Now no one quite knows yet whether or not Sonny Gray is destined to stay in the bullpen for the remainder of the season or even the next month or so, but if he can replicate that performance as a reliever, the Yankees may have very well found Sonny Gray's next calling. While Gray might not be entirely happy having to be forced into a reliever role, he may need to realize that at this point in his career, that is the role where the team can extract the most value from him.
For a team that already has a deep bullpen, a Sonny Gray that is performing at his highest level will only benefit the team more. Not only does it give rookie manager, Aaron Boone, another weapon, it also gives the team a long-man to use on those days where the starting pitcher might just not have it and has to leave the game early on. Furthermore, it's a very valuable thing come October because the postseason is an entirely different animal and when you have a deep pitching staff, you can come up with some pretty exciting pitching matchups. Just ask the Cleveland Indians or Houston Astros.