Sonny Gray made his 2021 spring training debut last night for the Cincinnati Reds against the Kansas City Royals. He allowed a run in 2.0 innings and picked up a strikeout before  handing the game over to the bullpen – which featured several standout performances by some prospects.

Spring training isn’t a time to really pay attention to statistical performance. There are simply too many factors that go into that – small sample sizes, the competition you are facing can vary greatly, what someone is specifically working on the day in which you face off against them, the defense behind you may feature three players who are simply be “tried” at new positions, etc. On Thursday night, Sonny Gray was working on some things of his own. Already one of the better pitchers in the league, he’s still looking to find ways to improve what he can do to get hitters out.

“I’ve got a few different thoughts going on when it comes to type of pitches currently that we’re messing with,” said Gray. “A few things I’m trying to work on here early and just decide from there whether we’re going to take it and input it into the game plan or whether we’re not. There’s just a few working parts that we’re going to focus on here early and just kind of see how it plays out.”

It was the next quote that got more attention, though – but it wasn’t as much for what he said as for what he did while saying it. Gray demonstrated what his pitches do with his hands while speaking to the media, and well, it made for a great GIF.

But the words he did say while doing his best demonstrative explanation matter, too.

“I’ve got pitches that do this (motions in multiple directions – see the GIF), if I can get one that does this and does this and then does that – so I’m just trying to work on that, the combination of pitches right now,” Gray said. “I’m very happy with what I can do with the baseball, I’m very happy with the way I can make the baseball move and what I’m doing to the baseball. But I think as a part of developing the next step, and me developing, you’re always trying to get better and always trying to develop. Me developing into a more complete and better pitcher, there are a few things I’d like to work on and continue to spend some time on – especially now – because if it can help down the road, I’d like to be able to do that. Like I said, if not, I feel very, very comfortable and confident with what I can do with the baseball now. So it’s just a few things we’ll continue to try and work on, try and play around with, and go from there.”

It’s fantastic that on March 4th that Sonny Gray is already feeling great about what he can do with the baseball. But for opposing hitters in the league, what he’s saying should be concerning. Since joining Cincinnati he’s had an above-average fastball, an above-average slider, and an above-average curveball. According to Fangraphs his fastball has been 0.38 runs above-average per 100 thrown (42nd out of 127 pitchers with at least 130 innings pitched over the past two seasons, his fastball has been 1.33 runs better than average per 100 thrown (21st), and his curveball has been 1.98 runs above-average (7th).

The attempt to get better doesn’t really stop for any athlete while they are still playing. So the fact that Sonny Gray is looking for and working on ways to improve isn’t surprising. Maybe the things he is working on don’t come to fruition and he’s simply got to go back to being among the best pitchers in the league. But it’s spring training and if you’re not going to dream about the possibilities of a better future now, when will you?

9 Responses

  1. DataDumpster

    It’s certainly a pleasure when you hear guys “talk shop” about how they are trying to improve their craft and can back it up (like Gray). Or, how some guys are mentioned by others for their tremendous work ethic/desire and show great improvement (like Antone).

    But, like a lot of teams I guess, there are far more players that talk about their very personal goals (e.g. 50 HRs, playing 3 or 4 roles/positions, becoming dangerous) which may or may not help the team depending on the tradeoffs involved to reach those “numbers” or “glory”.

    Maybe someday, the Reds will opt for management that can help turn players in the second category to the first. Maybe even sooner they will realize that perhaps they already have a coach capable of doing that and try to follow his lead.

  2. Sliotar

    Nice post.

    Wasn’t it the case …. not that long ago … that pitchers would view Spring Training as a time to tinker?

    Now … not just pandemic-induced … the trend in recent years feels like “just make it through March without injury.”

    Sonny Gray comes across as Old School (in mentality … not as Old-School, the legendary Redleg Nation poster).

  3. DataDumpster

    Thanks. The answers to your questions are “yes, yes…” but I could never understand the injury thing. I remember pitchers like Wilbur Wood who from 1971-75 averaged over 20 wins, 45 starts and 340 inning per year. Now, with better conditioning, equipment, doctors, less work, etc. the guys get injured all the time with conditions like sore middle finger, tender right hamstring, slight pull in biceps, etc.

    Many the “old school” guys now are just the work horses of old but with a much bigger paycheck.

    • Michael Smith


      The issue is we never remember all the guys whose arms fell off before they became household names. For every Wood or Ryan there is likely dozens of guys whose careers were ended by shoulder and elbow injuries.

    • Doug Gray

      We call that survivor bias, mostly. The guys who could throw that much survived the grind coming up and didn’t blow out their elbow or shoulder and never make it because surgery didn’t exist to fix the issues. I do think there’s probably something, too, to the workload – but it’s a lot more complicated than just pure workload/throwing more, and it starts at the age of 10. Now days if you aren’t throwing a breaking ball when you are 12, you almost assuredly aren’t making the travel ball team. The old days you just didn’t see that very often. That kind of stuff matters when it comes to injuries.

      When you reach the professional level now, too – it’s very different. Think about the lineups in the 90’s and earlier. They all had guy who absolutely couldn’t hit the ball with any authority in them and they usually had a few guys like that. Pitchers could “take a batter off” every so often in the lineup because that hitter wasn’t a real threat. It’s rare in the game in the last two decades that there’s a guy in the lineup who isn’t going to hit a ball down the middle of the plate over the wall. You can’t take a break in a lineup anymore. You’ve got to kind of go all out to every hitter now and that simply didn’t used to be the case. Every pitch is just more stressful today than it used to be.

      There’s also the fact that players have more reason and ability to speak up when they are actually hurting today. They make enough money today that they don’t feel like they *have to* hide an injury. Sometimes they will still do so for one reason or another, but the financial stakes are just different today than in the past.

      In the end, we don’t really know for certain one way or another. We’ll never really know. But there are a lot of smaller reasons that pass the sniff test that add up to why things are just different in the workload of pitchers today versus 1990 and earlier.

      • ClevelandRedsFan

        Guys are also throwing harder. In the 90s, I remember most starters sitting around 88-92 MPH with fastballs. 95 was a big deal. Now every starter is throwing 95+ and many are upper 90s.

      • Greenfield Red

        ClevelandRedsFan… I think you hit the nail on the head. Tom Seaver was great. Everybody raved about his 90MPH fastball. Like he was one of the few who could throw it.

  4. Jimbo44CN

    That is so true about the kids coming up. I coached quite a bit in little league and then teenagers, and some of those kids(10-12) were throwing breaking balls constantly. Many of them never made it out of high school ball. And the bit about the traveling team was so true. I remember a tryout for my oldest, as we had just moved to a new area, and they came right out and said they had to hold tryouts, but their team was already set for the year. I loved it cause the coach was pitching and my son about took his head off with a line drive. then another over the left fielders head. No use, he never got a call back. Sorry for musing on, but your post just struck a chord.

    • Greenfield Red

      There are horror stories about travel teams, because there is money involved. My kids are not interested in Sports, and I am thankful. However, it does not bode well for the future of Sports