Sonny Gray Is A Serious Cy Young Candidate

Photo Credit: Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

It’s September and pitching remains a highlight of the Minnesota Twins’ 2023 season. Pablo López recently eclipsed 200 strikeouts; his four-seamer has leveled up and brought his entire game with it. Kenta Maeda returned after missing all of 2022 and has had flashes of success. Bailey Ober inserted himself into the rotation months ago, and the Twins only sent him down because of load management. Joe Ryan and Tyler Mahle, pre-injury, have also done their fair share in bolstering Minnesota’s rotation.

Among the group, Sonny Gray has arguably been the best. An electric first month catapulted Gray into the Cy Young conversation. As every pitcher does at some point, he experienced a slight blip during the summer. However, a resurgent August has more than solidified him as a finalist.

According to FanGraphs’ Cy Young Predictor, Gray currently has the third-highest “points” in the race for the AL Cy Young. However, Gerrit Cole and Kevin Gausman are ahead of him. Luis Castillo and Framber Valdez immediately trail him, with George Kirby, Zach Bradish, Logan Gilbert, and López also in the top ten.

Many of these pitchers have renowned stuff. Bradish and Cole lead AL starters in Stuff+, a metric that measures the velocity, movement, release point, and other physical characteristics of a pitch. Valdez, Gausman, Kirby, and Gilbert are all top eight starters by Stuff+ in the AL, with Gray ninth.

Gray has steadily refined and upgraded himself since the Oakland Athletics drafted him out of Vanderbilt in 2011. He’s undergone several transformations since then, most notably an uglier one when he was with the New York Yankees. Gray had excellent spin on his four-seamer, a reliable two-seamer, and a successful curveball by that time. However, New York wanted to toy with his arsenal by diminishing his sinker usage and throwing four-seamers up in the zone. (He had a lot of horizontal movement on his fastball, so it didn’t play as well as other spinny fastballs do.) Still, he’s mostly using the same arsenal that he’s ridden to such tremendous success this season.

As far as arsenals go, Gray’s is deep. Although it wouldn’t be fair to say Gray lacks stuff, he employs the “kitchen sink” approach when he pitches. According to San Francisco Giants’ manager Gabe Kapler, “[The] guys that give [us] the most trouble [are] the Michael Wachas and the Merrill Kellys. … It’s the ball moving in both directions, it’s the kitchen sink, it’s the command, it’s the ability to predict what’s coming next.”

One of the things Kapler alludes to is a pitcher’s ability to tunnel their pitches. Partly because of the limitations of the human brain, pitchers can fool batters by having their pitches travel in mostly the same path until a certain point – then a breaking ball will break while the fastball stays up. The point is that batters will have a much harder time deciphering which pitch is which. For Gray, the ball could move in essentially five directions, if not six.

In addition to the movement profiles of his pitches, Gray may be able to manipulate batters by mirroring spin. Spin mirroring is when pitches rotate on the same axis but in opposite directions. Perhaps the best example is the backspin of a fastball in relation to the top spin of a curveball.

Gray’s four-seamer has a spin direction at 12:30. For his curveball to be perfectly mirrored, its spin direction would have to be opposite the clock face at 6:30. In reality, it is considered 7:00, still almost exactly mirrored. Gray’s changeup and sweeper and perfectly mirrored: 1:30 to 7:30. The back and side spin of the changeup pairs well with the side and gyro spin of the sweeper.

The way I see it, Gray has his bases covered. Some batters claim to be able to discern spin as the ball is released. Others, like Khris Davis, have said they can predict location based on how the pitcher’s wrist and arm are aligned. Many find it easier to identify fastballs, making that the basis of their approach at the plate. Whichever batter Gray faces, he has the ability to fool them.

If batters try to discern the spin of Gray’s pitches, he’s got excellent mirroring to throw them off track. Gray’s sheer number of pitches with distinct movement profiles further make it tougher for batters to make decisions based on pitch location. On top of that, Gray’s sinker/cutter can play off his fastball. Should a batter identify either of them as a fastball, the run/cut of each pitch can force batters to foul them off as the ball runs in on their hands.

Minnesota’s schedule should favor Gray’s candidacy down the stretch. Things start off tough against the Tampa Bay Rays and their fourth-best league OPS. Matchups against the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, and Oakland Athletics follow.

Gausman’s schedule is less favorable. He has starts lined up against the Texas Rangers, the Yankees twice, and the Rays. Cole is slated to face the fairly soft Pittsburgh Pirates, followed by two starts against the stronger Toronto Blue Jays.

Surpassing Cole will be no short order. He has accumulated more innings, wins (which voters will look for), and strikeouts than Gray. Gray does, however, have an opportunity to win voters over with a stellar ERA. If he adds 23 shutout innings (he averages roughly 5.8 innings per start, so 23 is 5.8 times four. This of course assumes he will be allowed a full workload.), he will finish the season with an ERA of 2.61. Cole and Gausman currently have marks of 2.79 and 3.29, respectively.

Regardless of the final numbers and results, Gray’s importance to the rotation and team as a whole cannot be understated. He’s always performed well as a Twin, but in a year where the lineup was not up to standards, he helped the Twins win the AL Central.

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