July 11, 2013
The Situation: With the All-Star break looming, the Athletics do not have a need for a fifth starter until late next week. Accordingly, Oakland is utilizing that roster spot to provide Sonny Gray with his first taste of major-league action, with the 2011 first rounder to work out of the A’s ‘pen.
Background: Gray was a first-round selection out of Vanderbilt University back in 2011, showcasing some of the best raw stuff in the draft but slipping to the A’s at 18th overall due to the depth of talent in the draft class, some questions about his sub-six-foot stature, and the quality of his off-speed. The former ‘Dore carved up the Texas League after signing in 2011 but took a step back, developmentally, in 2012, struggling to implement some mechanical tweaks and suffering through some regression in stuff and command.
2013 has been a different story, with Gray improving his pacing and finding a high level of comfort in each of his offerings. The results speak for themselves, as through 16 games he has averaged over six innings per start while posting an impressive 1.27 WHIP in the hitter-friendly PCL, while holding the opposition to a .249 batting average and whiffing 9.4 batters per nine innings. Additionally, his lively fastball and quality secondaries have resulted in a nearly 1.5:1 groundout to fly out rate, which has aided him in limiting damage when baserunners are on.
The Scouting: Gray’s best weapon is a big, hard 12-to-6 curve, which plays as a plus-or-better offering that he can drop in the zone or bury. It’s the very definition of a swing-and-miss pitch, and PCL hitters have had difficulty picking it up out of his hand. He pairs the power curve with a lively fastball that can be dialed up to 97 mph both early on and in the later innings. While the pitch lacks downward plane due to his size, he makes up for it with the late explosive action on the offering, and the difficulty hitters have in squaring the pitch is evidenced by his groundball and whiff rates.
His third-best offering entering the year, the changeup, continues to rate as merely average, but it serves well as a change-of-pace pitch and also draws soft rollover contact due to some deception in his arm slot and the quality of the fastball. He’ll also mix in a solid slider on occasion that will flash above average, but which is really more as a “show me” pitch. The sum of the parts is a well rounded arsenal that has avoided barrels in a difficult pitching environment this year. His groundout and strikeout rates should help him to limit his rough outings as he feels his way through major league adjustments, and there is little question now he has the tools to start, long term.
Gray has grown as a pitcher since signing with Oakland, and is well equipped to tackle the challenges of facing major-league hitters on a daily basis. He weathered his 2012 tribulations admirably, getting his first real taste of failure and showing an ability to battle through and make adjustments. Despite his smaller stature, he is well put together and has no difficulty maintaining his stuff throughout the duration of his starts (as well as late into the season). He is an intense competitor with a strong mound presence and projects as a good mid-rotation arm with a chance to offer front-end production if everything clicks.
Immediate Impact: This is a short term move for Oakland, as Gray is being allowed to get his feet wet now while Oakland makes use of an extra roster spot for as long as they do not need a fifth starter. His stay may be limited for this call-up, but while there is no immediate opening for Gray in the rotation, he will without question be the first call once a starter is needed. He could follow in the footsteps of Tampa standouts David Price and Matt Moore, joining the Big Club for good later this year to provide meaningful innings for a playoff push and through October—be it in relief or as a starter—and should establish himself as a rotation mainstay next April at the latest. —Nick J. Faleris
Fantasy Impact: It's not the situation that we were looking for as fantasy owners, but at least Gray is now at the major-league level. However, even in the bullpen (where many thought/still think he is destined to end up), he can hold a good amount of value this season in deeper formats. It's been night and day between the 2012 and 2013 seasons, and this version looks a lot more like the one we collectively got excited about when he was drafted out of Vanderbilt. Most importantly for fantasy purposes, the strikeouts are back—after registering fewer than six strikeouts per nine last season, he's back up over a strikeout per inning in 2013.
As I've been writing for the past few weeks in The Stash List, there are far worse places to be for opportunities than sixth starter in Oakland. The talent is there for Gray to have similar fantasy value to another sixth starter in the American League who was pushed into bullpen duty: Drew Smyly. And if he does make the rotation, I could see him putting up similar fantasy numbers to the constantly underrated A.J. Griffin. Right now, Gray is best left for AL-only leagues and deep mixed formats—though if you have a reasonably deep bench in a 12- or 14-team league, he's an interesting stash. And if you're in a league where it is beneficial to start as many relievers as you can due to inning or start limits, Gray will likely have SP eligibility, so he can be squeezed in on days your team doesn't fill up with starts. In AL-only leagues, I'd be willing to throw at least $5-$7 on Gray, as he's capable of returning that type of investment even if he doesn't make a single start. —Bret Sayre
Nick J. Faleris is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @NickJFaleris