At the 2017 trade deadline, the New York Yankees parted with three prospects to acquire Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics. They acquired a pitcher who finished third in the Cy Young voting just two years earlier, and was only 27 with two and a half years of team control remaining. The Yankees envisioned Gray as a significant multiyear rotation addition.
Instead, things went south for Gray late in 2017, and especially so in 2018. Last season he pitched to a 4.90 ERA in 130 1/3 innings, and was banished to the bullpen after the Yankees brought in J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn at the trade deadline. Gray was left off the team's postseason roster and, a few weeks ago, he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for a prospect and a draft pick.
"We are going to move him if we get the right deal because I don't think it is going to work out in the Bronx," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said to reporters, including Joel Sherman of the New York Post, back in November. "I don't feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results."
Gray is now in camp with the Reds, and earlier this week he spoke to The Athletic's Eno Sarris about what went wrong during his time in New York, and how he'll fix it. Here's a snippet:
"They had me throw more breaking balls than I ever had before," Gray said of New York.
It's just they had him throwing the wrong breaking ball.
"I can't command my slider that well," the new Reds starter admitted. "I want to throw my slider in the dirt with two strikes, and that's about it. I don't have that type of slider, like (Masahiro) Tanaka's slider. His slider, the catcher will catch it, and the batter will swing and miss. If I get a swing and miss, the catcher is blocking it in the dirt. When I try to throw sliders for a strike, I get around it and it's just a (s----y) spinning pitch. I don't know how people throw sliders for strikes that are still tight, good pitches. I'm at 2-0 and I'm throwing a slider, and either I'm throwing a (s-----y) slider in the zone, or I'm yanking it into the dirt and it's 3-0 and I'm screwed either way.
"They love sliders," he said of the Yankees. "Sliders are a great pitch. The numbers say slider is a good pitch, but you might not realize how many (s----y) counts you're getting in while throwing all those sliders. They wanted me to be Tanaka and I'm way different from him."
Despite velocity being at an all-time high, pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs these days than they did a few years ago, and the Yankees have taken that to the extreme. Last season their pitchers threw only 47.5 percent fastballs, the fewest in baseball. The Mariners were a distant second at 48.6 percent. Only two other teams (Dodgers and Red Sox) were below 50 percent. Breaking balls are harder to hit than fastballs, so the Yankees emphasize breaking balls.
Gray indicates he was on board with throwing fewer fastballs and more breaking pitches, but says the Yankees had him throw the wrong breaking pitch. "I didn't throw as many curveballs, and that's when it started to morph and lose shape," he said to Sarris. For what it's worth, the pitch tracking data disagrees. It says Gray did throw more curveballs and roughly the same number of sliders last year as in the past.
In Gray's defense, he is a handful for pitching tracking systems like PitchFX and Statcast because he throws multiple versions of each pitch. He changes the shape on his breaking pitches and will also manipulate his fastball, adding a little cut or sink here and there. The algorithms will sometimes classify a slider as a curveball, or a four-seam fastball as a cutter, etc.
Gray told Sarris it wasn't until his final appearance of last season that he said screw it, I'm doing what I want, and got away from the team's game plan. From Sarris:
"In my very last outing against the Red Sox, second to last game of the season in New York, I threw two innings out of the pen, all I did was throw cutters," Gray said. "I said, 'F--- 'em, all I'm going to do is throw cutters today.' I just threw 94-mph cutters — six up, six down, four punchies, and I thought maybe I'll make the postseason roster here … but I didn't."
It appears Gray's memory is a little foggy. The game was in Boston, not New York, and in that final outing Gray faced seven batters and allowed a hit in two scoreless innings, striking out three, and pitch tracking data says he threw zero cutters. It says 20 of his 31 pitches were fastballs. The other 11 were sliders and curveballs. It's one thing to misclassify a four-seamer as a cutter. But a curveball as a cutter? Nah. Throw nothing but cutters he did not. Here's the video so you can see for yourself.
Anyway, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was asked about Gray's comments on Tuesday, and he took the high road. Here's what he told reporters, including Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News:
"We tried as best we could to try to get him to be successful, so I think we all kind of shared in the frustration at times. I know he was frustrated, we were but, we just tried to get him to be the best he could be and as successful as he could be," the Yankees manager said after a 5-1 win over the Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. "I don't know if I'd characterized it… I mean he throws a slider."
It seems very clear a trade was the best thing for both Gray and the Yankees this offseason. The marriage wasn't working. The Yankees could've brought Gray back in 2019 and tried again, but, as Cashman said, the Yankees did not "feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results." I imagine Gray felt the same way. Both sides get a fresh start.
In Gray's case, he reunites with Reds pitching coach Derek Johnson, who was his pitching coach at Vanderbilt. Perhaps that will allow him to regain the form he showed with the A's earlier in his career.