When the 2014 season began, the Oakland Athletics look poised to repeat as AL West champions for the third year in a row. Then season-ending injuries to A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker occurred before a pitch was thrown. This left 24-year-old Sonny Gray to carry on as their 'ace' alongside what could be labeled as a makeshift rotation – a good one at that.
So far, he's done his part in living up to that role. Through the first month and a half of the season, the Athletics have a hold on the division, an obscene run differential (+73) as of Wednesday morning, and as of Tuesday their starting pitchers had combined to post a very solid ERA of 3.27. But pitching runs far deeper than that number alone, and Sonny Gray has emerged as a star.
Was he always seen as an ace?
So we'll pick up where his minor league career began, at rookie ball in the Arizona league and AA Midland in Texas. His combined 6 starts between both leagues in 2011 shows an incredibly small sample size, but for what it's worth he did post a 0.45 ERA in 5 starts with AA Midland.
Moving on to 2012 and Gray was ranked the No. 65 prospect by Baseball America, No. 72 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, and No. 85 prospect by MLB.com. The expectations were there. He responded by posting just OK numbers at Midland: 26 starts, 15.4K%, 9.1BB%, and an ERA of 4.14.
The following season he made all 20 of his starts with AAA Sacramento. His K% increased to 23.9%, his BB% decreased to 7.9%, and his ERA looked a lot better at 3.42. He had shown flashes of being the real deal, and he was ready for a shot in the big leagues.
Sonny's inaugural season
Gray was called up in July of last season in order to replace Dan Straily at the time. He made a couple of relief appearances over the next couple of weeks before being optioned back down to AAA. When he was called up again in August, Gray was given his first chance to start on August 10th against the Toronto Blue Jays.
He went 6 innings, scattered only 4 hits, gave up just 2 earned runs (4 runs total), walked 3 and struck out 5. Gray was credited with the loss, but he was in the major leagues to stay. He went on to post numbers of 2.67/69/70 in 10 starts, thus far living up to expectations. Then 2014 came along, and Gray was thrown into the fire.
The emergence of Sonny Gray
While people could rightfully point to his 2013 major league numbers and claim the Sonny we see now is the one we knew existed, 10 starts at the major league level when no other teams have played against you is an awfully small sample size.
Before this season began, Griffin was slated to be the Opening Day starter, while the combination of Parker and Gray were expected to figure in to Oakland's rotation quite prominently. I've always liked the idea of Griffin, Parker, and Gray being the new Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito – all three pitchers are young and have tons of promise.
Unfortunately, both Griffin and Parker are out for the season. While there's evidence that pitchers come back strong after undergoing Tommy John surgery, it's still not something you'd want your players to deal with. This is doubly true for Parker, who had to have TJS for the second time in his young career.
With two major players out for the year and a rotation that also carries the injury-prone Scott Kazmir, Gray needed to be the man to step up. Simply put, he has.
In his 8 starts of this young season, Gray has a line of 2.17/55/89. Those numbers aren't out of this world, but they are very impressive. As for the case that he's bound to slip up, well sure, every pitcher has their bad days. However, Gray has shown a lot in his first 18 big-league starts. 3 or 4 extraordinary starts could happen accidentally or be labeled a fluke, but he's been relatively consistent through 18 of them.
While he's likely to have his issues from time to time, Gray looks to be the real deal. A couple of things to note: his strikeout rate is down from 25.7% last year to 19.5% this year, while his walk rate has increased from 7.7% last year to 8.1% this year. Yet opponents are just hitting .224 off of him and he has left an incredible amount of people on base – 82.2% to be exact.
Gray is 24 years old, pitching like an ace, and the Athletics have the best record in the American League despite losing two key starters before the season even began. It'd be reasonable to say “the future looks bright” or “there's nothing but Sonny skies ahead” – honestly, Sonny Gray is a wonderfully contradicting name.
But this is about respect and notoriety. Through 54 innings of work Gray has posted the third-best ERA in the American League, followed closely by fellow teammates Scott Kazmir (4th) and Jesse Chavez (7th).
If the Athletics are going to continue their winning ways, it is imperative that the high level of pitching performances continue as well. At present, that all starts with Oakland's new ace, Sonny Gray.
All statistics courtesy of ESPN, Baseball Reference, and Fangraphs