The Oakland A’s opted to start rookie Sonny Gray in Thursday’s deciding Game 5 of the ALDS against the Tigers after he struck out nine batters over eight scoreless innings in Game 2.
Unfortunately, the 23-year-old was no match for Justin Verlander and the Detroit offense in Game 5, as the A’s were eliminated from the postseason with a 3-0 loss. Gray, meanwhile, allowed three earned runs on six hits and four walks with three strikeouts in five-plus innings.
While the A’s all-too-familiar early elimination from the postseason is a major disappointment, Gray was not. In fact, given the circumstances surrounding the start, the right-hander was downright impressive.
Reviewing ALDS Game 5
Picking up where he left off on Saturday, Gray opened Game 5 by striking out leadoff man Austin Jackson (looking) on a 96 mph fastball before retiring the side in order. The 23-year-old right-hander held the Tigers hitless through the first 3.1 innings before allowing a single to Torii Hunter. The next batter, Miguel Cabrera, gave the Tigers an early lead with a two-run home run to left field.
Though it was a gutsy effort, Gray didn’t have his best stuff on Thursday night. The right-hander relied mostly on his fastball in the outing, throwing it 73.5 percent of the time (per Brooks Baseball), but he struggled to command the pitch throughout the game. However, it was effective enough to help him get through the Tigers’ lineup without allowing a hit until the fourth inning.
During the regular season, Gray proved that he has the ability to baffle hitters with his devastating curveball, even when his fastball command was shaky. But on Thursday night, he couldn’t establish a feel for the pitch and used it only 16 times over five-plus innings.
By the end of the second inning, Gray’s curveball had lost considerable bite, and he was struggling to keep it in the zone. He completely abandoned it in the following inning and threw only eight more over the rest of the outing.
Although Gray’s breaking ball was essentially a non-factor in Game 5, the right-hander never lost confidence in the pitch—he simply acknowledged that it wasn’t working and did what he could with the rest of his arsenal.
So, it was nice to see him revive the pitch against Hunter in the fifth inning, inducing a pair of swinging strikes—on two of the better hammers in his outing—to begin the at-bat before retiring him on a groundball to shortstop.
Signs of a future ace?
Gray may be 23 years old with only 12 big-league starts under his belt, but you’d never know it by watching him this October.
The rookie demonstrates veteran-like poise at all times and boasts the confidence to back up his electric stuff. However, he’s more than a power arm with an ego; Gray already has an advanced feel for sequencing and understands how to execute an approach. If you disagree, then you need to go back and watch his Game 2 highlight reel.
However, it’s the right-hander’s ability to make adjustments that could make him the A’s ace in the coming years.
Selected with the No. 18 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Gray began his first full professional season at Double-A and was expected to make a quick ascent to the major leagues. But the right-hander struggled at the advanced level, posting a pedestrian 4.14 ERA and 97/57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 148 innings.
This past season, Gray erased all doubts stemming from his incredibly mediocre showing at Double-A by dominating in the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League. While he made a few tweaks to his delivery—so as to repeat a consistent release point and better stay on line with his target—Gray’s success was more so impacted by his knack for making swift adjustments.
On Thursday night, Gray knew that he didn’t have his best breaking ball. But instead of trying to force success with the pitch, he altered his approach as the game unfolded and increased the use of his fastball. In turn, he forced Detroit’s offense to put the ball in play as opposed to gunning for strikeouts as he did in Game 2.
I was especially impressed with how he handled himself in the fifth inning after throwing 33 pitches and escaping a bases-loaded jam in the previous frame. Gray approached Detroit’s hitters as if nothing happened in the fourth inning—which speaks to the rookie’s outstanding makeup—challenging them with fastballs throughout the strike zone and using his secondary offerings selectively. Though the right-hander walked two of the five batters he faced in the fram (one was an intentional walk), he refused to give in and executed crucial pitches against the top of the order.
Despite his ineffectiveness with the curveball, Gray didn’t turn to his changeup as often as expected and threw only eight of them in the outing. While the pitch has the potential to be at least average at maturity, it also represents his least developed offering at the present.
Drastically increasing the use of his changeup after the Tigers began to figure him out in the fourth inning would have only revealed a glaring vulnerability, and it could have potentially resulted in an early exit from the game. Instead, the right-hander wisely stuck with the fastball and forced hitters to beat him on his best pitch (at least in that particular game).
Looking Ahead to 2014
After Gray’s strong showing in the rotation over the final two months of the regular season—including two eye-opening performances against the Tigers in the ALDS—it may be tempting to label him as the A’s ace heading into the 2014 season.
A more realistic projection is that the right-hander will be closer to a high-end No. 3 starter next season, which will also mark his first full campaign in the major leagues. However, that’s not to say Gray won’t develop into a frontline starter.
Gray has already proven to be capable of shutting down a top offense using basically two pitches: a mid-90s fastball with explosive late life and 12-to-6, downer curveball that already ranks as one of the best in the game.
But the book will be out on Gray heading into the 2014 season, meaning opposing hitters will have a better idea of what to expect from the right-hander. Therefore, improving his changeup next year will be crucial towards his overall development and, in theory, it could help elevate him to elite starter status earlier than expected.
Gray can pile up strikeouts when he has command of both his fastball and deuce. However, even in those instances, his efficiency can leave something to be desired. During the regular season, the right-hander had four starts in which he fanned exactly seven batters despite registering a sub-62-percent strike rate.
Along those same lines, Gray will need to work deeper into games to receive consideration as a front-of-the-rotation starter. Granted, the A’s closely monitored his workload over the final months of the season, but that doesn’t account for the 23-year-old completing seven innings in only three starts.
Based on his poise, stuff and feel for his craft, I think we can all agree that Sonny Gray’s future is bright. And when you factor in his ability to make adjustments on the fly, we’re talking about a potentially special pitcher—the kind that carries a team deep into the postseason.