It’s Always Sonny in Cincinnati

Sonny Gray’s return to All-Star form has been a huge win for the Reds’ front office and fans.
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As the Cincinnati Reds continue to tread water in the National League Central, it’s looking increasingly likely that the team is destined for yet another losing season. The Reds have to go 22-15 the rest of the way to avoid a sixth consecutive campaign below .500, and unless things change soon they’ll have finished no higher than fourth place since 2013.

 

I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet, because 22-15 is more than just theoretically possible, especially since the Reds have one of the easiest schedules in the league for the rest of the year. But as we slog toward the finish line, it can often feel like the team’s perpetual rebuilding process has been an abject failure.

Sonny Gray, however, has been one of the (few?) shining successes of the rebuild. The Reds targeted him after a disastrous tenure in New York and were willing to bet on him to the tune of a three-year contract extension before he’d thrown a single pitch for the club. Gray has rewarded that gamble by returning to his status as one of the best pitchers in the big leagues, and it’s been glorious to watch.

The next time you head out to Great American Ball Park, do me a favor: Wander the concourse and ask random fans to guess which player leads the 2019 Reds in Wins Above Replacement. Before an usher kindly asks you to stop harassing people, you’ll probably get a variety of answers. Some will say Luis Castillo, the ace of the future. Eugenio Suarez and his 34 home runs would likely be a popular answer. Certain fans—those who overrate the value of singles and defense—might even suggest that Jose Iglesias leads the team in WAR. Most will tell you to shut up and stop asking about dumb internet statistics.

You may have already surmised that the answer is Gray, who entered Tuesday’s contest with the Padres on a streak of 18 consecutive scoreless innings pitched. He proceeded to begin the game with five more scoreless frames; those 23 innings mark the longest such streak by a Reds starter since Tom Browning all the way back in the championship season of 1990. After giving up one run in six innings and striking out 10 hitters for the second consecutive start, Gray stands at 3.6 fWAR on the season, clearly the best mark on the Reds roster. (Castillo is second at 3.0, while Suarez checks in at 2.4 fWAR.)

Earlier this season, I talked about some reasons that Gray was a good bet to bounce back:

First, Gray was critical of the Yankees organization for insisting that he throw his slider more often. In the off-season, he went back to his alma mater (Vanderbilt), where his old college pitching coach and one of his former teammates took him back to the drawing board. The analysis: Gray was right, and he needs to be throwing his curve more often and the slider less (among other tweaks).

The other reason I think Gray is a great candidate for a bounceback season is the identity of the old college pitching coach and teammate I mentioned above. Derek Johnson, Cincinnati’s new pitching coach, was with Gray at Vanderbilt. The old college teammate who worked with Gray this winter was Caleb Cotham, who is now the Reds’ assistant pitching coach. Circumstances seem to be lining up that will, at the very least, give Gray every opportunity to recapture his old form. Early returns are encouraging.

I wasn’t really exploring new territory there, but it’s astonishing how well Gray (and Johnson) have gone about remaking the 29-year-old righthander’s arsenal. As FanGraphs’ Tony Wolfe noted recently:

Gray’s found this dominance again by leaning into his strengths. He has always boasted high spin rates, and in 2019, he has generated more spin on his breaking ball than ever before. That has helped him generate some of the best slider and curve movement in the majors. According to Statcast, he gets the third-best horizontal movement and 15th-best vertical movement in the majors with his slider, while the horizontal movement on his curveball ranks 11th….

His slider has resulted in a .148 wOBA from opponents, while his curve has generated a .203 wOBA. That’s the best value of his career with the slider, and the best with his curve since 2013.

The result: Gray’s strikeout rate (10.64/9) is far and away the best mark he’s posted in his entire career, all while he’s walking fewer hitters and getting more groundballs. All of a sudden, he’s looking like the guy who finished third in Cy Young Award voting back in 2015. In fact, Gray’s 3.6 WAR is the second-highest mark of his entire career, and he’s likely to soon surpass his 3.9 mark from that brilliant 2015 season. Pitching WAR is an imperfect statistic, sure, but all the metrics agree: Gray is back, baby.

Think about that. The Reds acquired a former ace, signed him to a reasonable contract extension, and he’s arguably putting up the best season of his entire career. It’s an incredible victory for a front office that’s trying to patch up the mistakes made by Reds management in the early years of this rebuild.

Last November, New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman made it clear that he was ready to deal Gray because he saw absolutely no chance the pitcher would be successful for the Yankees. Nine months later, Gray is an All-Star once again and in the conversation as one of the top 15 starters in all of baseball.

Because of Gray’s inexplicable struggles at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees couldn’t see what the Reds saw. The advanced metrics suggested that Gray hadn’t been nearly as bad as Cashman was implying as he ran him unceremoniously out of Gotham. No one could anticipate that he’d be quite this good, but the circumstances were in place for Gray to return to form.

For his part, Gray feels like a new pitcher. As he told Forbes Magazine, “I feel like I can throw the ball way better than I have consistently. I think it’s more a mindset. Just go out there and do it. Go out there and be the best. That’s all I’m looking to do.”

Go out there and be the best. With Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo atop the Reds starting rotation, perhaps “the best” isn’t an unreachable goal for this club in the near future. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be the duo that leads the Reds out of the wilderness for the first time in a generation or two.

Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. He wrote about the 1970s Reds as part of the magazine’s “10 Events That Shaped Cincinnati” package. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.

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