ALDS 2013: Oakland A’s Make the Right Choice, Pick Sonny Gray For Game 5


Oct 5, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) pitches the ball against the Detroit Tigers during the sixth inning in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Throw all the “inexperienced” nonsense out the window, because Sonny Gray will take the ball for the Oakland A’s on Thursday night. Yes, it’s one of those Game 5s. It is in fact against the mighty Justin Verlander. And yes, Gray is what we call a “rookie.”

In case you’re just tuning in to this whole playoffs thing, Bartolo Colon was slated to start. He took the ball in Game 1, so do the math: Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. That’s five days of rest, one more than the usual four days.

So no, a lack of rest didn’t prompt Oakland’s decision to roll with Gray. Gray, in case you’re wondering, has also had the normal rest period, four days. He’s just fine, mind you.

There’s no use in dancing around it: the A’s flat-out chose their rookie right-hander. No catches, no excuses. They prefer Gray over Colon, at least under these specific circumstances.

Of course, we have to understand the obvious, which is that Colon has the experience factor–16 years in the major leagues, 58.1 postseason innings. Take the experience factor for what it’s worth. Some live by it, others, well, despise it. If we’re picking sides, I’d lean on the latter.

Sep 17, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) pitches during the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

However, compared to Colon, Gray has all kinds of upside. In that bag of goods includes the coveted ability to blow the ball past a hitter, so I think you know where I’m going with this: He flaunts that 95-96 mile-per-hour heater that seemingly every postseason starter (not every pitcher, of course) has in his back pocket.

Brooks Baseball tracks Gray’s fastball at an average speed of 94.04 mph. FanGraphs has it at 93.1. For the sake of the argument, the eye test agrees that he has plenty of pop too. All three routes make for some expected variation, but you get the point: Gray’s heater can light up the radar gun.

That’s precisely what he did in Game 2 against a fearful Detroit Tigers lineup.

We again to Brooks Baseball for the details, and yes, they are sparkly. Gray threw a whopping 58 fastballs. The average velocity? Exactly 95 mph. He hit 97 mph at one point. Flames were everywhere.

Now…a lively fastball isn’t everything. It’s certainly a good start to crafting a formidable arsenal of weapons, but it’s by no means the end. Next up, ideally, would be an off-speed pitch. Two would be nice, but one very good off-speed pitch will do just fine.

The latter is where Gray stands. He throws his slider and changeup not even 10 percent combined, which means, you guessed it, lots and lots of curveballs. To be exact, 26.3 percent of the pitches in his arsenal consisted of the hook.

That’s a good chunk, and the term “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” fits in well here. In this case, the “it” would be his curve, and yeah, it’s far from broken. Per Brooks Baseball, it yielded a minuscule .102 batting average (five singles) and a .023 ISO (two doubles) during the regular season. The word you’re looking for is “dominance.”

For some perspective, FanGraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights come in handy. If you’re unfamiliar with these pitch weights, the best, most simplest way I can define it is that they measure how valuable a pitch is. Or, how many runs above average a pitch is. Sounds simple, but it’s a bit more complicated.

But without getting too far into the meat and bones of the linear weights concept, let’s just say that Gray is in good company. Really good company.

What comes to mind when you think about good curveballs? Adam Wainwright? Clayton Kershaw? A.J. Burnett and Stephen Strasburg also sport good hooks. Throw Gray into that group too. Per FanGraphs, Gray’s curve (8.7) was the seventh-best in baseball, among pitchers who pitched at least 60 innings. That’s ahead of the likes of Yu Darvish, Gio Gonzalez, Mat Latos and Jose Fernandez. Yes, good company indeed.

Now, I think we’ve done enough drooling over Gray’s Uncle Charlie for now. But there is a counter argument, specifically attached to the Tigers’ ability to hit curveballs.

Behold (measured with the aforementioned linear weights):

Austin Jackson: 6.4

Torii Hunter: 5.4

Prince Fielder: 4.2

Jhonny Peralta: 3.7

Victor Martinez: 2.8

Miguel Cabrera: 2.7

Yeah, Detroit’s lineup consists of a lot of curveball-mashers, more than most teams have. Thus, it’s no wonder why they’re baseball’s best curveball-hitting team.

So, connect the dots. Gray’s curve is one of baseball’s best. The Tigers are baseball’s best curveball-hitting team. The Tigers didn’t live up to that billing in Game 2. Instead, Gray carved them up…easily.

No, I don’t have any fancy stats to predict exactly what will happen in Game 5. Both sides are good at what they do with the curveball. Simple as that.

As for Colon, well, we’re shortchanging him. He did post a 2.65 ERA in 30 starts this year. He was an All-Star. And if you like wins, he mustered 18 of them. That’s a darn good year.

October 5, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) receives a pie while being interviewed by ESPN after game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Coliseum. The Athletics defeated the Tigers 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

However, having a strikeout pitcher (or, a pitcher that can blow the ball past a hitter) on the bump in the playoffs, especially in a Game 5 scenario, seems to be the game plan that most teams roll with–of course, there are exceptions.

Don’t get me wrong, Colon’s command is pin-point. Only the Philadelphia Phillies’ Cliff Lee hit the strike zone more in 2013–just another tip to Colon’s hat.

If we’re going off pure stuff, though, Gray has the edge, a significant one, may I add. He struck out close to four more batters per nine innings than Colon did, and his K% was more than seven percent higher. We already raved enough about his lively fastball and drooled over his curveball.

In English: Gray is indeed one of those power pitchers, whereas Colon’s pretty much the opposite.

Either way, it will be the “rook” in Game 5. A tall task? We’ll see. But yes, the A’s made the right choice.

 All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted