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The Ace that’s flying under the radar

Who’s the first name that comes to mind when you think of the 2018 New York Yankees pitching rotation? Maybe it’s Luis Severino, the 24-year-old phenom who finished third in the AL Cy young race last year. Maybe it’s Masahiro Tanaka, the 155 million dollar Japanese import who dominated both the Indians and the Astros in the playoffs. It could even be CC Sabathia, the longest tenured Yankee pitcher, a Cy Young and World Series champion bound for the hall of fame who was the absolute stopper last year.

It’s probably not Sonny Gray.

Gray came over to the Yankees at the trade deadline last year. Brian Cashman was able to strike a deal with longtime friend Billy Beane to bring the then 27-year-old starter away from the dark depths of Oakland to the bright lights of Yankee Stadium. Gray’s first start with the Yankees was an ominous one. The Yankees’ defense made two errors in the first inning, leading to two unearned runs. Gray allowed two earned runs over six innings and took the loss as the Yankees could only muster a Gary Sanchez solo shot in a 5-1 loss at Progressive Field.

Gray made five starts in August, and did not allow more than two earned runs in any of them. He also went at least six innings in four out of those five August starts. He had two bad starts in September against the Blue Jays and Rays, but gave the team a chance to win pretty much every time he took the ball. The problem? The team didn’t score any runs when he pitched. The team scored 39 runs in Gray’s 11 starts. Nine of those runs even came in one game against Baltimore on September 17th. Take away that win and the Yankees scored 30 runs in 10 starts for Sonny. That’s three runs a game. The Yankees averaged 5.3 runs a game in 2017, and they averaged 3.55 runs a game during Sonny’s 11 starts. That should tell you all you need to know about the lack of offense he received.

Why do I think Sonny will be the ace this season? Let’s start with his track record. The 28-year-old right-hander has had an ERA under four in every year he’s been in the league other than 2016, when he made only 22 starts due to an injury. He’s a big game pitcher who owns a 2.95 ERA in four postseason starts (two with Oakland, two with New York.) He throws four filthy pitches with varying movements, strikes people out (about one strikeout per inning pitched in 2017) and is fully healthy. With the addition of Giancarlo Stanton, this offense will obviously score runs. Expect a regression to the mean with Sonny’s run support, with his run support more closely matching the team’s actual run output in 2018. This Yankees team will average close to six runs a game, and Sonny will surely get more runs than the 3.55 per game he got last year. The law of averages practically guarantees this. Gray will also have a full season in New York to get ready after having to move his family across the country mid-season. He was unexpectedly uprooted from low pressure Oakland and thrust into the New York spotlight with no time to process what was going on. This had to affect him to some degree, and I can’t wait to see what he can do with a full spring training and season in New York.

I surely hope Severino goes out and dominates again next year, but a regression is likely after logging more than 200 innings last year as a 23-year-old. Tanaka had a great postseason, but he was far from the ace of old during the regular season, and we simply can’t assume he is going to dominate wire to wire. CC is my guy, but he’s turning 38 and has almost no cartilage left in his knee.

I hope the Yankees win the Division and don’t have to play in a wild card game. But if they do? Expect Sonny Gray to get the ball.