The New York Yankees are probably looking at Sonny Gray right now, as well as their rotation, and just wanted to go Homer Simpson backs into the bushes dot GIF right now. This past offseason the Yankees traded Gray to the Cincinnati Reds after he posted a 4.90 ERA in 130.1 innings in 2018. Their approach as a whole pitching staff, rather than more of an individual approach, led to Gray being asked to use his pitches that didn’t maximize his strengths. Fortunately for the Yankees, while their pitching has been terrible as a whole from the rotation, their bullpen has been incredible, as has their offense, and they are 81-42 on the season. I’m sure that eases much of their pain, at least for now.
But for the Cincinnati Reds, their front office is probably feeling awfully good about their move to acquire Sonny Gray right now. A month ago he was in Cleveland as a representative of the Reds at the All-Star game. To that point in the season he had pitched well, making 18 starts with a 3.42 ERA. He had 36 walks and 112 strikeouts in 97.1 innings. He was a bit of a surprise All-Star given the depth of pitching in the league, but he had certainly pitched well for the Reds.
It’s been an entirely different ballgame for Sonny Gray after the All-Star break, though. And last night he just kept that going as he struck out 10 batters and allowed just one hit against the St. Louis Cardinals in 5.0 innings. That performance dropped his ERA on the season to 2.98. In his six starts since the break he’s allowed just seven earned runs over 35.1 innings. That’s a 1.78 ERA. Opposing hitters have hit just .157/.261/.298 against him in that stretch.
Back in the 2015 season, Sonny Gray was an All-Star with the Oakland Athletics. He finished the season with a 2.73 ERA in 208.0 innings with 169 strikeouts. The then 25-year-old finished third in the Cy Young Award voting for the league. While he hasn’t matched the innings total, and almost assuredly won’t given how the game has changed in a short period of time, he’s been significantly better at preventing runs when we adjust for the league and park factors.
In 2015 his ERA+ was 143 – meaning when adjusted for the ballparks he pitched in throughout the year, his ERA was 43% better than the league average. That’s really good. But this season, as I type this, his ERA+ is 154. The last time a Reds starter with at least 130 innings in a season topped that was in 2014 when Johnny Cueto’s 2.25 ERA was good for a 163 ERA+. Of note, Luis Castillo’s mark this year also is better, sitting at 171.
That’s kind of the point, though. Sonny Gray is doing things that Johnny Cueto was doing at his peak. Cueto did it for several years, and that’s what made him special. Right now, Gray’s only done it for most of one season in Cincinnati. And he had several good years in the past for the Athletics and Yankees (2017 was pretty well above-average with New York).
WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, particularly for pitchers, can be a real mess. There are two very different versions in the mainstream. There’s Fangraphs version of WAR that is based more off of the theoretical runs as proposed by FIP. And there’s the Baseball-Reference version, which is based on actual runs allowed. Both systems have their merits. And both systems have their flaws. But they can tell different stories.
In the Fangraphs version of WAR, Sonny Gray has the 11th most pitching WAR in the National League this season. In fact, he’s just ahead of teammate Luis Castillo this season, who sits in the 14th spot. With the Baseball-Reference version, Gray rates out as 8th best in the National League (Castillo is 4th). Split the two versions and you can reasonably argue that Gray is one of the ten best pitchers in the National League right now.
When the Cincinnati Reds rebuild began, whenever it actually was that you want to consider, it was with the idea that the pitching prospects they had in the farm would come up and help lead the team from the rotation. At least for now, that plan hasn’t really worked. Some of those guys are helping the team out of the bullpen, but none of them have come out as starters and been even average. What the Reds have done, though, is acquire guys via trades that have taken the rotation from arguably the worst in the history of the game to one that may feature two different Ace-caliber pitchers in Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray. There’s still plenty of work to do for the team to get where they need to be, but starting pitching, particularly at the top – it’s looking really good right now.