Is Sonny Gray the Best Twins Starter Of the Falvey/Levine Era?

Photo Credit: Lindsey Wasson-USA TODAY Sports

Even with a few bullpen-induced dark clouds hovering overhead, the forecast has been mostly sunny for the Minnesota Twins this year. Or, should we say mostly Sonny?

Minnesota’s starting pitching has been a clear forte so far, primarily due to the excellent output from their ace, Sonny Gray. No doubt about it, he’s been their top hurler when he takes the mound. But how does he compare to other would-be aces in the Falvey-Levine era?

Since that duo assumed their roles at the head of the table in the front office before the 2017 season, we’ve seen some noteworthy starting pitcher performances. And even though a good handful have been noteworthy for the wrong reasons, there have certainly been some positive developments from Ervin Santana, José Berríos, and Kenta Maeda. Sure, we’ve only seen just under half of a season from Gray, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that he is the best starter that we’ve seen since this front office took over, and the numbers back it up.

After coming over in an offseason swap with the Cincinnati Reds, expectations were high for Gray from the get-go. Whether he was ready to assume the role or not, he was the top dog. Part of that was due to a front office stagnance in the free-agent market, but it also had to do with his body of work. In nine seasons before joining the Twins, Gray had a career ERA of 3.61 (1.22 WHIP), with 8.7 strikeouts and 3.2 walks per nine innings. He made two All-Star appearances and received Cy Young votes in 2015 and 2019.

How good has Gray been for the Twins?

The Twins were banking on Gray being a suitable replacement for Berríos and were hoping a few tweaks could take him to the next level. So far in 2022, he has delivered just that. In 10 starts heading into Saturday’s matchup with the Baltimore Orioles, Gray has a pristine 2.17 ERA (2.67 xERA), thanks largely to a 0.97 WHIP (the lowest of his career) and the fact that he’s inducing more soft contact than ever before. Opponents have been averaging an exit velocity of just 86.8 MPH against him, which is tied for 10th-best in baseball.

Simply put, Gray keeps hitters off-balance, and in turn, the base paths clean. He’s been able to do this by sticking to the modern approach to pitch tunneling – spot the fastball in the upper quadrant of the strike zone and pair it with breaking pitches that the hitter is forced to chase or hit weakly.

According to Inside Edge, Gray has followed every page of that script. Opponents are hitting just .123 on his elevated fastballs (6th-best in baseball) and slugging just .193 (7th-best). He pairs it with his slider and curveball, which have opponent batting averages of .217 and .152, respectively. Hitters aren’t finding success on high fastballs, so they go hunting for breaking pitches. If Gray keeps those out of the zone, he will find seemingly automatic success. And that is what has happened so far, with spectacular results. He’s striking out almost a batter per inning (8.9 K/9) and walking fewer batters than ever before in his career (2.0 BB/9).

How do these results stack up to other Twins’ starters since 2017?

When Falvey took over after the nightmare 2016 season, Santana was by far the best starting pitcher on the Twins staff. He carried a 3.28 ERA through 211 innings pitched and started the club’s first postseason game in seven years. Santana was the ace that year thanks to his aforementioned ERA and league-leading five complete games. While his innings total is the most impressive out of any pitcher the Twins have seen in the last six seasons, he had a lackluster 7.1 K/BB and good-not-great 3.84 xERA.

Berríos was the next man up. As much as Twins Twitter loved to shout that he wasn’t an ace, he should be considered the best all-around starter that the club has developed since Johan Santana in the early 2000s. He peaked in 2019, when he was an All-Star and had a 3.68 ERA in 200.1 innings pitched, and was worth 4.4 Wins Above Replacement on the year. Berríos’ expected ERA that year was 4.06, so he was outplaying his peripherals. Still, his availability for the entire year (32 games started) is definitely valuable. This year’s version of Gray has outpitched that version of Berríos, but Gray’s stints on the IL can’t be ignored.

Maeda had one of the best complete seasons in Twins history in 2020. The only issue is that season was only 60 games long. In that abbreviated sprint, Maeda had a fantastic 2.70 ERA (2.75 xERA), striking out 10.8 batters and walking just 1.3 per nine innings. In just 11 starts, he was worth 2.1 fWAR and finished runner-up in the Cy Young vote. Maeda had a truly excellent season, even if it was brief. It’s not his fault that he was pitching through a global pandemic. If those results had continued into 2021, he would probably be Gray’s biggest contender for the top Twins ace of the Falvey regime.

Ultimately, it’s too early to tell if Gray is indeed the ace of aces. His first 10 starts have been a great sign, though. So much so that if he can stay healthy for the next three weeks and perform as he has this year, I could see him getting consideration as a substitute for the All-Star game. True aces usually find their way onto these rosters, and that’s what he’s been for the Twins when healthy.

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