Rankings Counterpoint: Buy Low On Sonny Gray While You Still Can!
On Monday, fellow colleague Nick Doran introduced a “Rankings Counterpoint” series at TDG, imploring you to sell high on the Rays’ Matt Moore. In piggyback fashion, I’m here to tell you to do the opposite with the Athletics’ Sonny Gray, whom the TDG staff collectively ranked 35th among starting pitchers. Gray, 24, isn’t a typical buy low. You might even think he’s a buy high and stopped reading past the title of this post. But at No. 35 on our list, I think there’s room for value.
Selected 18th overall in the 2011 draft, Gray entered the 2013 season as Oakland’s No. 4 prospect, according to Baseball Prospectus, behind shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Michael Choice and right-handed pitcher Dan Straily. Gray made 20 starts in Triple-A Sacramento, dominating the hitter-friendly PCL with 8.97 strikeouts per nine innings and holding opposing batters to a .257 BA. This came after striking out only 5.90 batters per nine innings across 26 Double-A starts in 2012. The right-hander also cut down his walk rate, from 9.1 percent to 7.9 percent, and his fly ball-to-ground ball rate improved dramatically after graduating to the highest minor league level.
Gray was called up to the big-league club last July — working out of the bullpen initially — and received 10 consecutive starts from Aug. 10 on, compiling a 5-3 record with a 2.85 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 61:19 K:BB ratio in 60 innings. Gray was arguably Oakland’s best starting pitcher down the stretch, helping to secure an AL West crown for the A’s. Bypassing veteran and former Cy Young award winner Bartolo Colon, manager Bob Melvin handpicked Gray to start Games 2 and 5 of the ALDS against the Tigers and he didn’t disappoint, allowing just three runs in 13 innings of work to go along with 12 strikeouts and six walks. Unfortunately for Gray, Oakland lost Game 5, 3-0, with the deciding blow coming in the form of a two-run home run off the bat of (who else?) Miguel Cabrera.
The righty’s arsenal features four pitches, including a 12-6 curve, a slider and a changeup (that he uses sparingly), in addition to a fastball that generally sits in the 93-95 mph range, but can reach 97 in the later innings, as was the case in Game 2. That velocity has been on the up since the end of 2012, when Gray decided to “…just go back to challenging hitters,” including a harder changeup (around 88 mph), according to this must-read piece from FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris.
With Michael Wacha putting on a show en route to a National League championship and Danny Salazar exhibiting spurts of greatness in Cleveland, Gray has flown somewhat under the radar on the west coast. This isn’t the case among TDG’s writers, who ranked Gray as the superior dynasty league starter, citing a small sample size for Wacha and past injury and size limitations for Salazar. To be fair, Gray comes with some of the same caveats, but his progression was much more natural than Wacha, who skipped Double-A altogether, and he doesn’t have the Tommy John cloud hanging over his
head elbow like Salazar.
Gray has also had more time to mature, whereas Wacha was “thrown to the wolves,” so to speak (while exceeding expectations). Gray, meanwhile, battled through adversity and command issues in 2012 and made the proper adjustments at the next level and further sustaining it against major-league batters. I know there has been some opposition in the pecking order of Gray (No. 35), Wacha (No. 40) and Salazar (No. 51) among select commenters, but I’m on board with Gray as the best dynasty league target of the bunch.
Gray’s strikeout rate will most likely see a dip, as his swinging strike rate was a league-average 9.5 percent in 2013, but he’s a perfect fit in Oakland (and really, who isn’t?) as a groundball pitcher in a big park — I don’t ever envision a home-run problem with Gray. I didn’t view him as anything more than a mid-rotation starter entering 2013, but everything clicked for Gray, who made important mechanical adjustments toward the end of 2012 that obviously carried over. Betting on a starting pitcher with less than 75 innings isn’t preferred, but I’m willing to take the chance on Gray being a future No. 1, as soon as 2014. I think he’ll cruise as the A’s most valuable starter this year and make the jump inside the top-25 starters in TDG’s dynasty league rankings next offseason.
Alex Kantecki also writes for Fake Teams and Vigilante Baseball. You can poke him on Twitter at @rotodealer.