Sorry for the pun in the title. I know it’s terrible but it’s just too easy. On Monday, Sonny Gray had his best start of the young season and finally started to look like himself again. The overall results were okay but not spectacular: 6 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 4 K. Serviceable and much improved from his previous outings this season in which he looked downright awful. Let’s take a look at how he was able to manage his way through the potent Astros lineup.
Increased Fastball Usage
Throughout his career Gray has relied on his four-seam fastball and sinker to get ahead in the count and generate ground balls. Per Fangraphs, before coming to the Yankees, Gray threw his fastballs about 55% of the time. With the Yankees that number is down to about 40%. As Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs has reported, the Yankees throw fewer fastballs than any other team which is part of their approach to limit hard contact. According to Travis Sawchik of Fangraphs, using his fastball so infrequently might be why Gray has pitched so poorly since the trade.
In his start on Monday, Gray threw 42 four-seamers and 22 sinkers for a total of 64 out of his 97 pitches. That works out to a staggering 66%, which is his highest fastball usage of any start this season. You can see this usage change in the chart from Brooks Baseball.
Location, Location, Location
It’s no secret that Gray has struggled with his control and command this year. He has walked a crazy high number of batters this year, and Monday was a small improvement. Three walks in six innings is not great, but it is better than some previous outings. More importantly, Gray was consistently around the zone. Take a look at the zone plot from Baseball Savant:
You can see that not many pitches were in the middle of the zone, which is what you want. You can also see how Gray mixed his four-seam fastball between the lower part of the zone to get called strikes and then up in the zone to get swings and misses to put hitters away. Additionally, you can see how most of the curveballs and sinkers are down or below the zone which is exactly where they should be.
In-Game Adjustments & Romine Effect
The other big difference on Monday was how Sonny adjusted between innings. He throws six different pitches, and it is unlikely that all will be working during a start.
On Monday, the slider was a trouble pitch for Gray, and early in the game he and Romine talked about changing the game plan. According to Marc Carig of The Athletic, “Gray felt far more comfortable with his curveball. So he threw the hook instead of sliders, even if it meant going against the original plan.”
In fact, Gray threw seven sliders in the first inning. He threw six the rest of the game combined. That ability to adjust was essential to Gray’ success on Monday and will continue to be important moving forward.
They key for that adjustment was the communication between Romine and Gray and their collective willingness to adjust during the game. Perhaps that is the real difference between Romine catching Gray and Sanchez catching him. From the same Carig article, CC Sabathia said that Gary Sanchez cares about sequences and following the game plan that is devised pregame.
For Gray, that game plan will often change as discussed above. If Sanchez struggles to adapt on the fly, it is easy to see why Gray works better with Romine behind the plate. In Gray’s past starts with Sanchez you see him shaking off a lot but on Monday, he only shook Romine off once. Learning to check-in with Gray between innings to see what is working and what isn’t may be what Sanchez needs to do a better job of to improve his relationship with Gray.
The simple fact is Gray is an immensely talented pitcher. He throws hard and has ridiculous movement and spin on his pitches. Using his fastballs more, locating down in the zone, and adjusting in-game all played huge dividends this start.
Gray described his start on Monday as a step forward and I believe he will continue to make strides to become the pitcher we know he can be.
You can contact Rohan on Twitter @rohanarcot20