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Prospect Retrospective: Sonny Gray

A look at the career and prospect history of the Yankees right-hander

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

This evening the New York Yankees will send right-hander Sonny Gray to the mound against Trevor Bauer and the Cleveland Indians. We’re profiling all of the starting pitchers in the playoffs to see how they looked as prospects and how they have developed. Let’s get to Gray.

A star pitcher at Vanderbilt University, Gray had an impressive sophomore season in 2010, posting a 3.48 ERA in 109 innings with a 113/48 K/BB, then followed up with an even better junior year in 2011 at 2.43, 132/51 in 126 innings. Renowned for his mound presence, he was a top ten candidate but some concern about his command and a need to improve his third pitch dropped him down a bit on draft day. The fact that he was shorter than a typical right-hander didn’t matter to most observers and he went 18th overall.

He threw just 22 innings in his pro debut after the long college season. I filed this report for 2012:

Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray was one of the best pitchers available in the 2011 draft, but “fell” to 18th overall because, well, someone had to. His best pitch is a stellar curveball, but he’s got a good fastball too—in the 93-95 MPH range, sometimes a tick higher. He relied on the fastball/curve combination in college and didn’t use a changeup very much. His pitching instincts are solid and the general consensus is that he can develop the changeup into a useable third pitch. If he doesn’t, the fastball/curve combo will be strong enough for him to close games, but using him as a starter for as long as possible makes sense to me. He is shorter than the classic right-hander, but is a good athlete and had no problems holding up under a full workload in college. He worked high in the strike zone in college but got plenty of grounders as a pro (2.00 GO/AO), granted a 22-inning sample is too small to draw conclusions from. Strong Grade B.

Gray’s 2012 season did not go as expected. He made 26 starts for Double-A Midland, posting a 4.14 ERA with a 97/57 K/BB in 148 innings. The key here was a sharp decline in his strikeout rate compared to what he was doing in college. He still threw hard but had difficulty commanding all three pitches from game to game. There was a split among Texas League observers about how Gray projected going forward, a split reflected in my report for ‘13:

Drafted in the first round in 2011, former Vanderbilt ace Sonny Gray had an adequate but not excellent season in 2012. He was inconsistent in Double-A, struggling with his mechanics and command at times, although scouts still like his potential. At his best, he features a 91-96 MPH sinking fastball, a very impressive curveball, and a fairly good changeup. His pitches have a lot of movement, enough though he doesn’t always know where they are going. The changeup needs refinement and he needs to deploy it more often; he didn’t use it much in college and is still learning how to integrate it into his operational plan. Some scouts think Gray is best-suited to relief work, but Oakland seems committed to using him as a starter for as long as possible, which makes sense. Despite his problems last year, I still think he can be a strong number three starter. Keep track of his K/BB and K/IP ratios; if you see improvement, he’s breaking out. Grade B.

The breakthrough occurred.

Gray made 20 starts for Triple-A Sacramento, posting a 3.42 ERA with a 118/39 K/BB in 119 innings; note the hoped-for improvement in his strikeout ratios and walks. He followed up with 10 starts for the major league team, posting a 2.67 ERA in 64 innings with a 67/20 K/BB and solidifying his lock on a starting rotation spot.

Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

His 2014 (3.1 fWAR) and 2015 (3.8 fWAR) campaigns were quite good. 2016 was an injury-riddled disaster but he came back in ‘17 and was closer to his normal self (2.8 fWAR between the Athletics and Yankees), then traded to New York for three prospects.

Overall Gray holds a 48-43 record in 123 major league starts with a 3.45 ERA, ERA+ 115, with a 666/252 K/BB ratio and 12.0 fWAR.

We still need to see how his durability pans out long-term. That said, a healthy Gray is pretty much what scouts hoped he would be: an above-average starting pitcher with periods of dominance.