Hello readers. My name is Jeb Clarke and this is my first post here at Check Down. I am a recent (6 days) college graduate and I find myself in the awkward phase that most of my fellow classmates seemingly find themselves in post-graduation. It seems as though us graduates can be categorized into three groups. Group A includes the fortunate ones that obtained a fancy, suit-wearing job that requires relocating to a new city immediately following (or soon thereafter) graduation. Group B includes the not-so-fortunate ones that will be “taking their talents” back home to mom and dad for the time being. Finally, group C includes the grads that also find themselves at home, but have also secured a part-time, minimum wage position that starts sometime in mid-June. Thankfully, I find myself in group C — which is a whole lot better than group B, but not quite as good as group A. So, since I will be spending quite a bit of time on the couch for the next couple of weeks, I figured I might as well make myself useful. I like baseball and I like to write. So why not do both? Here goes…
Naturally, my first instinct on deciding what to write about was to take a look at my fantasy baseball team. I figured that a player who was greatly outperforming, or underperforming his pre-season projections would make for an intriguing story. Luckily, up to this point, most of my players are outperforming their projections. However, for this post I chose to look at a player that is struggling. This player is Sonny Gray. Mando included Gray on his list of MLB’s “Disappointing Duds,” and rightfully so. The Oakland right-hander is 3-5 with a 6.19 ERA and is currently listed on the 15-day DL. His 5.10 FIP suggests that he has been a bit unlucky and part of his struggles can be attributed to Oakland’s poor defensive — they have made the third-most errors in MLB and rank last in team UZR (a stat shows how many runs a team has saved, or given up, through their defensive ability). But even after taking away Oakland’s lackluster defense, Gray’s numbers are nowhere near his career 3.17 ERA and 3.51 FIP.
By looking at FanGraphs, we can see how often a pitcher throws a certain pitch over the course of a season. The following chart shows one glaring change in Gray’s pitch type selection from last season where he went 14-7 with a 2.53 ERA. In 2015, Gray threw his slider roughly 16% of the time (column 4) and rightfully so — batters hit just .126 against it.
In 2016, Gray has cut is slider usage almost in half — to just over 8%. Now, I am not going to pretend that I know the reasoning behind this. Maybe it is a feel thing, maybe he is not throwing it for strikes, who knows. But, the fact of the matter is that batters are still struggling mightily against this pitch — hitting a measly .105.
Meanwhile, from the first table, we can see that Gray used his changeup only 6% of the time in 2015 (column 7). Historically, from the following table we can see that the changeup has not been one of Gray’s strongest pitches. Batters are hitting .258 against the pitch over Gray’s career and .286 against it in 2016.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of the changeup. Pitchers need to throw it at least occasionally to keep the batter off-balance and from jumping at their fastball. But, in Gray’s case, the changeup is not one of his better pitches — so why has it seen increased usage in 2016? Meanwhile, Gray’s slider is his best pitch in terms of BAA (batting average against). So, why has he thrown the pitch so much less in 2016? My advice to Gray — get healthy, and throw more sliders.