Fantasy Baseball: 5 Reasons to Believe Sonny Gray Can Rebound in 2017
His past production made owners feel as though choosing him was a no-brainer. Between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, he won 28 games, surpassed the 200-inning plateau twice and had a cumulative ERA under 3.00. Unfortunately for Gray and those who owned him, he never really found his footing in 2017.
Multiple stints on the disabled list (a strained right trapezius and strained right forearm) limited him to just 117 innings of work. Those innings also weren’t very fun to watch as he went 5-11 with an unsightly 5.69 ERA and 1.50 WHIP while he allowed 1.38 homers per nine innings, which was close to double his previous career-worst mark (0.74) for homers per nine.
Heading into 2016, ESPN had him ranked as MLB’s 17th-best pitcher, but he's fallen all the way to the 50th-ranked pitcher, per FantasyPros’ consensus rankings, for 2017. Gray is behind hurlers like Drew Pomeranz (47th), Kevin Gausman (40th) and Dallas Keuchel (32nd).
Is there reason to believe in a rebound and feel confident in taking him if he does indeed fall further than we’ve seen in recent years? Here are five statistics from last season to help build that confidence before deciding to take the plunge.
Some Bad Luck
Was Sonny Gray good in 2016? Not at all. But judging from how he produced against some of his peripheral stats, it looks like he was also a bit unlucky.
According to FIP and SIERA, Gray still would’ve had a disappointing year anyway because of the expectations he’s set in years prior. However, having an ERA around 4.50 and having one approaching 6.00 are two very different things.
We did an exercise earlier this winter to find out which qualified starting pitchers experienced the worst luck in 2016. Gray didn’t make the list because of his innings count, but if he had more innings, the 1.37 difference between his ERA and SIERA would’ve landed him second, with only Michael Pineda being more unlucky.
Still a Ground-Ball Machine
Between 2013 and 2015, Gray built a reputation upon being a ground-ball machine, inducing them over 50% of the time. One would imagine that with such a spike in homers allowed, his ground-ball rate (GB%) would’ve decreased while fly-ball rate (FB%) would’ve increased.
The opposite happened. On top of that, both his hard-hit rate (Hard%) and his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB) shot up.
Obviously, hard-hit rate spiking to a career-high level is never a good thing for a pitcher, but opposing hitters sent a ball in the air less often in 2016 than they did in 2015. When they hit it in the air, though, it went over the fence nearly twice as often as Gray's career HR/FB rate prior to 2016.
Based off what he did in the 491 big-league innings prior to this lackluster performance -- and knowing he's still entering just his age-27 season -- there should be some positive regression here.
Getting Ahead of Hitters
Gray walked a career-high 3.23 hitters per nine innings (BB/9) last season while also striking out a career-low 7.23 per nine (K/9). That's a bad mix.
Getting ahead early in the count isn’t the problem -- as we can see with his first-strike percentage (F-Strike%) -- but he was plagued by a low swinging-strike rate (SwStr%).
Gray got ahead at a career-best clip, but he wasn't able to generate enough swings and misses to put guys away.
Opposing hitters aren't chasing as many pitches, swinging at just 27.5% outside the zone in 2016, and they managed to make contact at a rate Gray never experienced in the big leagues (career-high 81.8% contact-rate last season).
Part of that conundrum for Gray could be attributed to what he's throwing.
While velocity issues are the first thing people look for when a pitcher struggles, Gray didn’t have any issues there despite the forearm injury – his fastball clocked in at an average of 92.7 miles per hour in 2016, which is right in line with what he's done throughout his career.
What's interesting is watching the progression of his slider and curveball through the years, along with the differences last season. Here's how often Gray has thrown his fastball (FB%), slider (SL%), cutter (CT%), curveball (CB%) and changeup (CH%) throughout his career.
According to Brooks Baseball, Gray’s slider and curveball have been his most successful pitches when factoring in batting average against, slugging percentage, ISO and BABIP.
That trend kind of continued with his slider in 2016. Opposing hitters produced just a .177 batting average against it, but they also racked up a .412 slugging percentage and a hefty .235 ISO.
Why did his usage of the pitch go down? Sure, the results weren’t as great as usual, but that’s where injury could come into play, especially that forearm strain. A clean bill of health in 2017 is important for Gray to utilize his breaking pitches like he has in the past.
How did Gray produce an ERA in 2016 that was over two full runs above his career mark? If just two individual stats could be pointed out, it'd be hard to look past the career-high BABIP and career-low Left on Base Percentage (LOB%).
Prior to last season, he typically stranded runners at a clip higher than the league average, but that number plunged in 2016.
Among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last year, Gray's strand rate of 63.9% was the fourth-lowest mark. He was giving up hits at the wrong time, which, for the most part, is nothing more than rotten luck.
So, he went from career bests in each category in 2015 – which also weren’t far off from his past production – to career worsts the following season. It’s tough to believe that a 27-year-old pitcher with a proven track record of success suddenly loses everything that makes him a positive contributor on the mound.
How much has his stock dropped because of this disappointing campaign?
According to NFBC average draft position data, Gray's current average draft position checks in at 207.5, which slots him in the 17th round of 12-team leagues. Pitchers like Carlos Rodon and Jerad Eickhoff are ahead of him, with Anthony DeSclafani and James Paxton immediately behind him.
Are those hurlers talented? Yes. Do they have potential to be fantasy assets? Yes. Do they have the pedigree and track record of Gray outside of that disappointing 2016? Definitely not. There is no such thing as drafting a bust in the 17th round. When it comes to choosing between the above pitchers or Gray at that point in a draft, going with Gray and believing last year was an anomaly for a number of reasons is a no-brainer.