Sonny Gray came into the season off of the radar for most top-100 prospect lists. At the beginning of the year, Baseball Prospectus had Gray as the #4-ranked prospect in the Oakland system and Baseball America had him as the #5-ranked prospect. John Sickels at Minor League Ball also had him at #4 before the season while Marc Hulet at FanGraphs liked him a lot more: Hulet ranked Gray at #2 in the organization but didn’t like him enough to put him in the Top 100.
Gray, 23, was the 18th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the legendary pitcher’s factory of Vanderbilt University. After an up and down season in 2012, Gray started in Triple-A Sacramento before getting called up to make two appearances out of the bullpen for the A’s on July 10 and 19. He went back to Sacramento for three more starts (including one in which he got completely blown out of the water) and returned as a starter on August 10 against the Toronto Blue Jays. While Gray’s season hasn’t been without the occasional rough patch, he’s certainly been outstanding overall.
In 64 major league innings, Gray has shown poise and command to go along with his outstanding stuff. He logged a 2.67 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, a 25.7% K rate and a 7.7% walk rate. What’s really impressive is that his strikeout and walk numbers have remained almost exactly the same as they were in Triple-A (in fact, they’ve both improved slightly). His advanced stats look excellent too with a FIP of 2.70, an xFIP of 2.92, a tERA of 3.00 and SIERA of 3.11.
How’s he done this? Well, mostly it’s with a very good fastball that has averaged over 93 mph (closer to 94 mph if you go with Brooks Baseball’s figures) and an outstanding 12-6 curveball that Fangraphs says is worth 3.33 runs above average per 100 pitches (as a point of reference, Max Scherzer‘s slider was worth 2.98 runs above average per 100 pitches).
So, why are we writing about Sonny Gray? Well, last night, he went up against the Detroit Tigers led by Justin Verlander in an epic pitching duel for the ages. Both pitchers went eight shutout innings and Gray gave up only four hits and two walks while striking out nine. During the season (according to Brooks Baseball), Gray’s pitch usage was about 64% fastballs, 30% curveballs and about 6% changeups. In last night’s game, however, he went with what worked best, throwing just over 71% fastballs, just over 26% curves and only 3% changeups.
With just one start, Sonny Gray has put himself on the baseball world’s map and graduated from being a prospect into a budding star for the Oakland Athletics. What do we learn from this? While Gray has electric stuff, he was left off all of the top-100 lists because he had a rough year last year working out mechanical kinks. He’s also got the short end of the stick because he’s not a big strapping pitcher with a “projectable frame” (he’s listed at 5’11″). This teaches us a great lesson about the minor leagues: all players are works in progress and when things come together for a talented young player, their stock can really rise.