As we continue to down the road of looking back at the 2019 Cincinnati Reds we get to the best pitcher on the staff in the 2019 season, Sonny Gray.
The Preseason Projection
Sonny Gray was coming off of his worst season as a professional in 2018. The New York Yankees had changed up his pitch usage and the Reds felt that they could get him back to the pitcher he had once been. So Cincinnati traded for, and extended Gray in January with the hopes that they were correct.
Here’s what Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for the 2019 season had to say for the Cincinnati Reds right-handed starter:
The 2019 Season
The Cincinnati Reds debut for Sonny Gray did not go as he or the Reds would have hoped. On March 31st he struggled and didn’t get out of the 3rd inning, walking four batters without a strikeout and left the game trailing 3-0. He quickly turned things around, allowing a run in 6.2 innings with no walks and seven strikeouts the next time out, and during the month of April he made five starts with a 3.33 ERA.
In May things got out to a bit of a tough start. In the first three starts of the month Sonny Gray walked eight batters with 12 strikeouts in 14.1 innings and allowed nine earned runs in 14.1 innings (5.65 ERA). But he closed out the month with two strong starts where he allowed just one run over 12.0 innings with 16 strikeouts. June, though, was a little bit below-average. Gray made five starts and saw his ERA for the month come in at 4.78 over his 26.1 innings pitched.
On July 3rd he put together what may have been his best start of the season. Against Milwaukee he struck out 12 batters with just one walk in 8.0 shutout innings. That lowered his ERA on the season to 3.59. It may have been responsible for his placement on the National League All-Star team as a replacement. For the second time in his career, Sonny Gray was an All-Star – but for the second time in his career, he didn’t pitch in the All-Star game. When he returned to the mound following the break, he would go on a run in the second half that took him from being an above-average pitcher to being among the best in the entire league. He made four more starts in July, posting a 2.96 ERA in 24.1 innings.
That run in July was just the beginning of what was to come. Over his next seven starts he dominated the National League, allowing just four earned runs in 42.2 innings – that’s a 0.84 ERA for those of you keeping track at home. That run included back-to-back 10 strikeout games against the Cardinals and Padres on August 15th and 20th.
The season would come to an end with three starts after that, which were strong, but not quite on par with the run he had been on. In his final start of the season he struck out six batters, putting his total at 205 on the season – giving both he and Luis Castillo 200+ strikeouts on the year. They were the first Reds teammates to ever accomplish that feat in the same season.
The Reds took a bit of a gamble on Sonny Gray. And they hit the jackpot. When the season was over, Gray was 5th in the National League with a 2.87 ERA and he had just set a career high with 205 strikeouts. His ERA+ of 158 was easily a career best, as was his 6.3 hits allowed per 9-innings pitched. A lot of things went right for Gray and the Reds when he was on the mound in 2019.
In a year where the baseball was flying out of the ballpark at record rates due to manufacturing standards being all sorts of out of whack, Gray’s 51% ground ball rate that was 7th best in all of Major League Baseball helped him avoid the long ball unlike most other pitchers in the game. Coupled with an increase in strikeout rate, and a career low .255 BABIP and he was able to put together an outstanding 2019 campaign.
What’s to come?
Coming off of a career best type of season, it’s probably not expected that Sonny Gray can repeat what he did in 2019. Fair or unfair, that’s likely the reality. His BABIP was a career best, and if it goes back towards the norm – which for him has been .280 for his career (still much lower than the league average), he’s probably going to see some sort of regression in his ERA.
With that said, there’s also a reason to think that he could balance that out if the baseball is more “normal” in 2020. While he’s an elite ground ball rate guy among starting pitchers. That helped him negate some of the juiced baseball issues in 2019, a normal ball could help him shave a few extra-base hits off of the total that did take place in 2019.
Sonny Gray’s very likely going to be an above-average starter in 2020. He keeps the ball in the park, he doesn’t give up extra-base hits, he misses bats, and his walk rate is acceptable. That’s a good formula. But he’ll likely have to improve in some areas in order to match what he did in 2019 when it comes to keeping runs off of the board because there were a few areas where luck was on his side, too.