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Breaking Down the Sonny Gray Trade (Fantasy Baseball)

by Carmen Maiorano | @cmaiorano3 | Featured Writer
Jan 24, 2019

Finally, another fantasy-relevant trade for us. Ken Rosenthal announced that the Reds acquired Sonny Gray and subsequently signed him to a three-year, $30.5 million extension. The Reds shipped infielder Shed Long to the Yankees, who immediately flipped him to the Mariners for outfielder Josh Stowers.

Stowers, the Mariners’ second-round pick in 2018, is nowhere near close to the majors. Long played 126 games in Double-A for Cincinnati last year and was considered the Reds’ seventh overall prospect, according to FanGraphs. He has some speed (19 stolen bases and 75 runs scored in 2018) and sported a .350 OBP, so he will score some runs once he starts hitting at the top of the lineup down the road. He may get a cup of coffee in the majors this season, given that the Mariners are projected to be projectile vomit stink. He is worth a look in dynasty leagues. But you came here for Gray, and you will get Gray.

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Home Woes

It is well documented that Gray did not enjoy Yankee Stadium all that much. His 6.98 ERA in 59.1 innings was much, much worse than his 3.17 ERA over 71 innings on the road. There are other ways to splice his stats, but they don’t show quite as well how spooked he looked pitching in the Bronx. For example, he was much better after the All-Star break, striking out 38 hitters in 39.2 innings while sporting a 3.63 ERA. He also only made five starts in the second half. His first half was rough, as you probably remember—5.46 ERA, 85 Ks over 90.1 innings. However, that difference isn’t attributable to anything noteworthy at first glance:

  • First half: .271/.352/.435, .342 wOBA
  • Second half: .258/.343/.381, .321 wOBA

Those numbers and the Ks per nine innings are pretty similar, so his limited innings in relief likely favorably skewed his second-half numbers. When you peek at how he fares going through the lineup, he got absolutely lit up the second time through the order (7.29 ERA, .468 SLG, .371 wOBA), but showed resilience the third time through the order (3.27 ERA, .346 SLG, .311 wOBA). That does not make sense. Both of these splits do not have a large enough sample size to truly dig into, but this trend (or lack thereof) shows that Gray was an extremely inconsistent pitcher in 2018. His pitching profile, revealed below, will help paint a picture of what he must do to get back on track.

Will the Woes Continue?

Before we get to that, let’s talk about his new digs, the Great American Launchpad. Roster Resource currently lists him as the “ace” (loose term) of the Reds’ staff, followed by Alex Wood, Luis Castillo, Tanner Roark, and Anthony DeSclafani. That is a very intriguing, yet unpredictable rotation, and Gray is indeed the most unpredictable of the batch. The trade’s first factor to identify is the park change. According to ESPN Park Factors, Gray will pitch in the worst ballpark for homers and the fourth-worst for runs. Yankee Stadium ranked sixth in both categories in 2018, so he is going from a hitter’s park to even more of a hitter’s park. This should scare some folks.

The good news is that while the NL Central may be, top to bottom, the best division in baseball, Gray gets to move away from the World Series champions. The other AL East stadiums are also slightly worse for a pitcher than the NL Central. Then again, he also no longer faces the worst team in baseball in the Orioles. Moving from the AL to NL is generally better for a pitcher, given that he gets to face a pitcher instead of a DH.

Another subtle item to track is that while Gray is not an extreme ground-ball pitcher, he compares similarly to new teammate Wood in that department. In the past three years, Gray has posted ground-ball rates of 54%, 53%, and 50%, respectively. Of course, it is a bad trend that those numbers have dipped every subsequent year. Not surprisingly, that drop has unfortunately been accompanied by a proportionate increase in line-drive rate. Paired with a 7.5% increase in hard-hit rate from 2017 to 2018, it’s pretty easy to see why Gray had a couple mishaps—and then some—last year.

The funny thing is, his soft-contact rate was actually at its lowest since 2013. So maybe it’s not all gray skies for Sonny (sorry, I couldn’t resist). In any park, inducing soft contact via the ground ball is a good thing. If Gray can focus on that, it won’t matter if he’s pitching in New York, Cincinnati, or on the moon; he will have a better season. But there is substantial doubt as to whether he can right his wrongs.

A couple more things to note on Gray’s profile before getting to some intangibles and ADP. Overall, hitters swung less at Gray’s offerings (down 3% in Z-Swing% and O-Swing%) but made more contact when they did swing (up 2.5% in Z-Contact% and O-Contact%). This shows that hitters are sitting on Gray’s pitches, and hitters can easily distinguish the type of pitch they are seeing. He also saw his swinging-strike rate (SwStr%) decrease to 10%, a 2% decline from 2017. This SwStr% is still slightly above league-average, but it would be nice if Gray could pump that percentage back up. He is known as a crafty pitcher with a few different varieties of fastballs, so it is surprising to see hitters swing less often, miss less often, and also make harder contact. Maybe he’s just not crafty enough.

Another, less tangible, aspect of this trade is that he is now reunited with his former college pitching coach, Derek Johnson. There are several articles written about Gray’s and Johnson’s relationship. This should give Gray some comfort at his new landing spot. Of course, it is hard to predict a boost in overall stats simply because he can see his loyal pitching coach from the mound while he’s got two on and one out in a tie game at Wrigley Field in September. Yet nothing but good things should happen as a result of reuniting with Johnson.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the league figured out Gray. His last truly phenomenal seasons were back in 2014 and 2015, in which he posted a sub-3 ERA and sub 3.50 FIP over those two years combined. His K/9 has since risen, but his BABIP has risen roughly 50 percentage points since 2015. His HR/FB rate has climbed nearly 6%, and his left-on-base percentages have decreased by nearly 7%. Gray hasn’t come close to imitating those glory years in the past three seasons. While the change in ballpark may actually help, his peripherals scream that he likely won’t improve much since his 2014 and 2015 seasons seemed to have a lot of luck in his favor. It could be time to give up on hoping Gray returns to form as the every-start, fantasy SP2 he used to be.

The good news is Gray is currently (and should be) going right outside the 300 mark as the 87th drafted pitcher on Fantrax. On NFBC since January 1, he has slid to 114th for pitchers but narrowly resides inside the top 300. This section of the draft is typically reserved for young up-and-comers without a settled rotation spot (see Mike Soroka, Touki Toussaint, Julio Urias), or veterans who haven’t lived up to their once-thought potential (Marcus Stroman, Michael Fulmer). Clearly, Gray belongs in that latter grouping. The 29-year-old is by no means over the hill, but this seems like a good range for him.

While Steamer hasn’t updated its projections for Gay, it is safe to say that he is a late-round flier in standard leagues. The smart money may be to draft him as such, hope he starts the season well, and then sell high for a guy who will get more strikeouts and better ratios.

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Carmen Maiorano is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Carmen, check out his archive and follow him @cmaiorano3.

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