Sonny Gray: Buy or Sell?
The Athletics shored up their staff for a 2014 playoff run by acquiring aces Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. Both pitchers aren’t long for the Bay Area (Lester’s a free agent after this season, though Shark is under team control through 2015), but Oakland had its future ace already: Sonny Gray. On fantasy owners’ radars since starring at Vanderbilt, Gray was a popular breakout pick for 2014. The right-hander is cruising through first full season with 2.6 WAR, 7.84 K/9, and 3.33 FIP. Should owners cash in on Gray’s pedigree, or is the best still to come?
Sonny Gray reached a national baseball audience when he went toe-to-toe with Justin Verlander in the postseason last year. In fantasy baseball, Gray is a player dynasty owners are long familiar with. Under the tutelage of Tim Corbin and Derek Johnson at “Vandy” (who also developed David Price and Mike Minor, among others), the Tennessee native is yet another great Commodore pitcher. Logging 293 1/3 innings over three seasons in Nashville positioned Gray to advance quickly.
With Sonny Gray, determining his long-term value is two-fold. First, is it likely Gray recaptures his form from the 2013 debut, striking out 9.42 batters per nine with a 2.81 BB/9? Second, assuming the current performance maintains, how much value can a fantasy manager benefit from Gray ownership?
Surprisingly, Sonny Gray is striking out right-handed batters at a lower rate than lefties. Gray’s curveball is a true out-pitch and one of the best in baseball. Batters can usually pick up a curve ball out of a pitcher’s hand early due to the slight upwards trajectory. Gray is no different, but he often mixes in a lower, harder release point resembling a slider making the pitch more difficult to anticipate. With hard bite and 11-to-5 break, a curve from a righty should be more difficult for same-handed batters (in fact, Gray struck out right-handed batters at a clip of 10.33 K/9 in 2013).
One of the primary culprits for fewer Ks is Gray’s control. He’s walking more batters and throwing fewer balls inside the zone. As Gray finds himself in fewer pitcher’s counts, he’s not been as prolific punching batters out. More specifically, he’s walking right-handed batters more than last season, since the righty carries the nearly the same BB/9 versus lefties in 2014 as 2013. As is, Gray already possesses a greater than 7 K/9 and 50%+ groundball rates- lowering his BB/9 to three or fewer puts him in the “sweet spot” for starting pitcher success. Expecting Gray to land somewhere between his strikeout and walk rates in 2013 and 2014, which should catapult him into high-end SP2 territory.
Buy Sonny Gray, Even With A Premium
In his current form, Sonny Gray projects as a 3.5 WAR pitcher. Gray’s arsenal (a fastball, sinker, change-up, and curveball), features pitches generally considered easier on the elbow and shoulder than sliders, cutters, and split-fingers. In fact, the Athletic throws a fastball or change-up 72.2% of the time. While not as appealing as the 2013 version, the ability to pencil in 15 wins and 180 strikeouts for the next eight years is immensely valuable (a la Lester). On the other hand, while Garrett Richards and Corey Kluber should reach 5 and 6 WAR seasons, respectively, their career trajectory is much less certain. As ROTOscouting advised fantasy owners to consider selling Richards and Kluber largely thanks to their heavy slider usage (along with Richards’ unusual velocity spike), Gray carries much less risk.
With only minimally improved control, Sonny Gray should return to the pitcher who racked up 1.5 WAR in 10 starts last season. While owners fawn over the impressive numbers of Richards and Kluber, recognize these pitchers are at peak performance (and value). Sonny Gray, on the other hand, still has room for improvement and should be targeted in every league. Use this period to acquire the budding ace for less than he’s worth.
11 Aug 2014 / Ben Flajole /
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