It’s not just because of a change of scenery either.
To say that Sonny Gray’s tenure with the Yankees was a disaster would be a bit of an understatement. After Sonny Gray’s escape from New York, he’s put up numbers closer to what he did in his first few seasons in the majors. His 3.78 ERA is a tad inflated, but the run estimators agree that he’s been good to great.
FIP has him at 3.11 and DRA put him at a highly respectable 2.83 before Tuesday’s start against the Brewers. He’s striking out more batters than ever before. He has been a major reason why Cincinnati has had the best pitching staff in the National League.
Surely, the change in scenery has been huge for Gray. In 2018, pitching at home was a death sentence for him. He ended the season with a 6.98 ERA at Yankee Stadium but a 3.17 ERA on the road. Never mind that Gray is still pitching is an extreme hitter’s park. Maybe it really was the pressure of pitching in New York or maybe Gray’s improvement is the result of some measurable changes.
Bigger than getting out of Yankee Stadium was getting away from an analytics department that he didn’t mesh with. In a March interview with Eno Sarris, Gray spoke candidly about some of his frustrations in pinstripes. The Yankees wanted him to throw sliders in the strike zone which is something Gray admits he can’t do.
You can’t really blame the analytics department for wanting Gray to throw his slider more often. It is his best secondary pitch. Batters whiffed on 39 percent of the sliders Gray threw last season and slugged just .321 against it. But now that Gray is free from having to throw his slider, he has definitely been throwing it less often, right?
Gray is actually throwing his slider more often than last year, but the difference is that it’s not the anytime, any count pitch the Yankees wanted. That description might be hyperbole anyway, but Gray did go to the slider in more 2-1 and 3-1 counts in 2018.
In a Reds uniform, he’s back to primarily using it to put hitters away. He has reserved it mostly for 1-2, 2-2, and 0-2 counts. Meanwhile, he’s depending on the fastball when he’s behind.
It’s not just that Gray is succeeding because he’s using the slider on his terms, his slider has gotten better. Gray’s slider has always had exceptional drop, but he has added extra horizontal break as well.
Yesterday, Baseball Savant unveiled their new movement metrics and by their measurements, Gray’s slider has an added four inches of horizontal break. Gray’s slider now ranks 11th in that category.
Baseball Savant’s measurements also compare pitches with a similar velocity and release point. Gray’s 84 mph won’t be compared to Jacob deGrom’s 92 mph slider because gravity has less time to affect deGrom’s pitch.
Gray, who throws his slider with fairly average velocity and a conventional release point, gets exceptional movement compared to his peers. Gray ranks third in horizontal movement above average and ninth in vertical movement above average.
With his added break and better deployment, hitters are having an even tougher time with Gray’s slider. before yesterday’s game, Gray had struck out 19 batters with the slider and only 18 sliders had put in play. Only one of those fell in a for a hit and that was just a lousy single.
The improved slider hasn’t been the only change for Gray this year. In the same interview with Eno Sarris, Gray talked about how the Reds introduced him to spin efficiency. Gray has one of the best fastball spin rates in baseball, but because of his arm slot, his spin efficiency is lower. High spin fastballs resist gravity better than low spin heaters, but only if thrown just so. Gray’s fastball is thrown in a way that’s more conducive to cutting action.
Rather than changing his arm slot, Gray has embraced this. Before this year, Gray had kept his four seamer away to righties and away to lefties. Here’s a heatmap of Gray’s fastballs thrown to left-handed hitters in 2018.
This year, he has more confidently attacked the inside part of the plate to lefties.
Mostly though, he’s gone to the sinker against lefties when he wants to throw a fastball. So far, the change in approach has been effective as lefties only have a .241 wOBA against Gray this year.
I think we all expected Gray to improve after he left New York even if the weird home and road splits were mostly bad luck. How he’s improved has been a bit of a surprise though. It’s one thing to change his pitch selection, but it’s quite another to add more break to a pitch that was already pretty good.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.