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Pitching report: Sonny Gray is using his excellent slider to cement his role atop the Oakland A's rotation. 

By Michael Beller
May 25, 2015

Sonny Gray followed a pretty common path during his first two years in the majors. After falling off top-100 prospect lists heading into the 2013 season, Gray put together a good, but not great, year at Triple-A Sacramento, and earned himself a promotion after the All-Star break. He then starred in a 64-inning extended tryout with the A’s, posting a 2.67 ERA, 2.92 xFIP, 1.11 WHIP and 67 strikeouts. In his first full year in the majors at age 24, he had a strong season, compiling a 3.08 ERA, 3.47 xFIP, 1.19 WHIP and 183 strikeouts in 219 innings. That didn’t quite measure up to his 2013 strictly on a per-inning basis, but that was to be expected.

Gray was still young enough to make changes heading into 2015, but he looked more like the solid middle-of-the-rotation starter he was in 2014, rather than the potential ace his 2013 numbers suggested he could be. Year three on this trajectory is when most pitchers show their true colors. Some settle in as No. 3 starters or worse, while others, typically aided by a change in repertoire to counteract the adjustments hitters have made over the years, shoot back up toward the top of the rotation. Gray has proven himself as part of the latter group this season.

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Through two months, Gray has been one of the best starters in 2015. In 10 starts covering 66 innings, he has a 1.77 ERA, 2.60 FIP, 1.00 WHIP and 61 strikeouts against 18 walks. He’s still getting more than 50 percent of balls in play on the ground, and his 19.2-percent hard-hit rate is the fourth-best in the league. Add it all up, and he’s the No. 6 overall fantasy starting pitcher in standard leagues, trailing only Max Scherzer, Felix Hernandez, Zack Greinke, Shelby Miller and Dallas Keuchel.

Gray’s per-inning numbers regressed last season largely because his breaking pitches weren’t nearly as effective as they were during his third of a season in the majors in 2013. With more exposure to the league, it wasn’t a huge surprise that hitters were able to find a greater measure of success against Gray, given that he wasn’t completely major-league ready when he made it to The Show. If he was going to be Oakland’s ace of the future, he’d have to adjust back, and that’s exactly what is happening this year. Take a look at his pitch-usage rates, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

While Gray still throws his curveball with regularity, he has halved the pitch’s presence in his repertoire. To fill that void, he’s throwing more sliders and cutters. Just as important has been the minimizing of his changeup. The pitch was one of Gray’s worst, as hitters amassed a .304 batting average and .478 slugging percentage against it last year. For all intents and purposes, he doesn’t throw it this season, offering it just a select few times against left-handed hitters.

It’s safe to say Gray’s changes have given him the upper hand. The following table are the results and averages for all of Gray’s offerings this season. Pay particular attention to what hitters have done, or rather, what they haven’t done, against the slider.

Gray has come to rely on his slider this season after using the pitch in specific situations over his first 283 innings in the majors.  According to Pitch F/X pitch values, it has been the fifth-best slider in the majors. The pitch was at its best in a recent outing against the Red Sox. It was the final pitch in seven of his nine strikeouts, and the Red Sox went 0-for-5 against it when they did manage to put it in play. Let’s take a look at it on three different occasions.

First, Gray gets Mookie Betts to chase a slider low and away in a 2-2 count. This is just the sort of count in which Gray might have shied away from the slider last year, preferring to go to it in plus counts. This season, he has the confidence to throw it in almost any count.

Next up is a looking strikeout of Hanley Ramirez. Gray admittedly misses his spot with this pitch, but he completely locks up the Boston slugger. That shows just how much he has altered his repertoire this year. A 2-2 slider on the inner half is a pitch that Ramirez could do a lot of damage with, but it’s so unexpected that he completely freezes and takes it for strike three.

Finally, Gray gets Brock Holt to swing over the top of a slider in yet another 2-2 count.

Gray could have gone either way in 2015. Thanks to some necessary tweaks in his pitch usage, as well as one of the game’s best sliders, he’s cementing his role atop Oakland's rotation.

Pitchers of the Week

Corey Kluber, Indians: 17 IP, 1 W, 19 K, 1.06 ERA, 0.88 WHIP

It appears Kluber has found the Cy Young stride that made him one of the best pitchers in the league in 2014. He followed up his 18-strikeout game with an effort nearly as dominant. Kluber struck out 12 batters while allowing one run on five hits in a complete game win over the White Sox in his first start of the week. He then wet on to limit the Reds to one run on nine hits in eight innings, striking out seven while walking zero. In his last three starts, Kluber has 37 strikeouts against one walk, and has surrendered just two runs in 25 innings. That will be the roll he’s on when he opposes the Mariners in Seattle on Thursday.

Jacob deGrom, Mets: 8 IP, 1 W, 11 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.13 WHIP

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A pitcher needs to have a great outing to make the Pitchers of the Week on the strength of just one start, and that’s exactly the feat deGrom accomplished last week. He threw eight scoreless innings against the Cardinals, allowing just one hit and striking out 11 batters. The lone hit came on a Matt Carpenter single in the first inning. From that point forward, deGrom sent down 23 consecutive hitters. With the Mets holding a comfortable lead and deGrom nursing a minor hip injury, Terry Collins pulled him after the eight inning. The best news for fantasy owners is that, after a slow start to the year, deGrom now has three strong outings in his last four trips to the mound. In his three strong May starts, he has allowed a total of two runs in 21 innings, striking out 26 batters while dealing with 16 baserunners. The righty’s next start is Tuesday against the Phillies.

Mike Bolsinger, Dodgers: 8 IP, 1 W, 8 K, 0.00 ERA, 0.13 WHIP

Bolsinger’s effort against the Padres last week was nearly identical to deGrom’s against the Cardinals, with just three fewer strikeouts. Bolsinger also tossed eight shutout innings and allowed just one hit, earning his third consecutive win in a 2-0 Dodgers triumph. Bolsinger has been great since getting the call from Triple-A Oklahoma City, amassing a 0.71 ERA, 2.75 FIP, 0.79 WHIP and 22 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings. He quickly showed the Dodgers he had little left to prove in the minors, going 2-0 with a 1.42 ERA, 1.64 FIP, 0.95 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 19 innings across four starts. Bolsinger made nine starts with the Diamondbacks last season, and pitched much better than his 5.50 ERA would indicate, as suggested by a 3.31 xFIP. At this point, he’s shown enough to be trusted by owners in most mixed leagues, and is likely universally owned in NL-only leagues.

Pitchers of the Weak

Anibal Sanchez, Tigers: 9 1/3 IP, 13 K, 13.50 ERA, 2.04 WHIP

Sanchez got knocked around in both of his starts last week, likely precluding his owners from winning either the ERA or WHIP categories in head-to-head leagues. It started on Tuesday against the Brewers when he gave up seven runs on seven hits in 3 2/3 innings. He managed to make it through 5 2/3 innings in his weekend start against the Astros, but gave up another seven runs on eight hits. Sanchez did provide his owners with some value thanks to 11 strikeouts against the swing-happy Astros, but it was another terrible week in what has been a rough season for the veteran righty. He has a 6.12 ERA and 1.33 WHIP in 60 1/3 innings. His velocity is down across the board, and that has made a once-dominant fastball/slider combo league average at best.

Taijuan Walker, Mariners: 9 1/3 IP, 6 K, 7.71 ERA, 2.25 WHIP

Walker was essentially Sanchez Lite last week, and in this case that’s not a good thing. He also started on Tuesday and Sunday, going 3 2/3 innings in his first outing, and 5 2/3 in his second. Rather than allowing seven runs in both starts, however, Walker surrendered four. That may have been better than Sanchez’ week, but it was still among the worst in the majors. His lingering control problems hurt him in his starts against the Orioles and Blue Jays, as he issued four free passes in each game. Walker was always a big strikeout pitcher in the majors, and heading into last week he had 33 whiffs in 33 2/3 innings, but he fanned just six batters in his two trips to the mound. Walker is supposed to be the second part of a dominant 1-2 with Felix Hernandez, but he just hasn’t put it together this season. He’ll take a 7.33 ERA and 1.84 WHIP into his next start against the Indians on Friday.

Bartolo Colon, Mets: 4 1/3 IP, 4 K, 16.62 ERA, 3.00 WHIP

Colon had his worst start of the year last week, surrendering eight runs on 11 hits and two walks in just 4 1/3 innings against the Cardinals. After a strong start to the season, the wheels have begun to come off for the 42-year-old. In his last five starts, Colon has allowed 22 runs on 41 hits and two walks in 29 2/3 innings, good for 6.67 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP. His owners had to know the high times of April couldn’t possibly last all season, but his reversal of fortune has been rather swift. He should stilll be owned in most mixed leagues, but don’t consider him matchup proof at this point.

Buy, sell or hold

Buy: Carlos Carrasco, Indians

This isn’t the first time Carrasco has been featured in this section of the Pitching Report. Shortly after the scary incident in which he was hit in the face by a comebacker, we recommended looking into buying him at a potentially lower price than he should be available. With about a month’s worth of starts since that happened, you may be able to steal him at an even cheaper cost. There’s no doubt that hits rates are not where most expected them to be at this pint of the season. In 49 1/3 innings, Carrasco has a 4.74 ERA and 1.26 WHIP. He also has 58 strikeouts against just 12 non-intentional walks, suggesting that he has been getting quite unlucky. Carrasco’s FIP is 2.64, while his xFIP is 2.67. There’s no way that he has earned a .351 BABIP, and his strand rate of 64.5%- is also a cruel twist thrown his way by the fates. On top of a slider that was already a weapon, Carrasco has thrown his changeup more this season, and it’s producing great results, as well. Hitters have managed just a .175 batting average and .200 slugging percentage against it, and the pitch carries a 23.7% whiff rate. He’ll be a top-20 pitcher for the rest of the season, and his top-10 upside.

Sell: Taijuan Walker, Mariners

We alluded to this earlier, but it deserves a longer treatment here. The Mariners expected Walker to start making strides toward being a frontline starter this season. Instead, he’s the lowest-ranked starting pitcher in standard 5x5 head-to-head leagues. At this stage of the season in a redraft league, you can afford to sell him, and that means cutting him outright. Walker has simply failed to develop secondary pitches to go along with what can be an overpowering fastball. He’s throwing that heater more than 65 percent of the time this season. His only other pitches with a double-digit usage rate are his splitter and cutter. Opposing batters are hitting .447 with a .605 slugging percentage against the splitter, however, so throwing that nearly 20% of the time isn’t helping him. He doesn’t have a breaking pitch that he can truly go to to get an out, evidenced by the fact that he has thrown the cutter just more than 11% of the time, while his curveball has 5.5-percent usage rate. Walker is still a project, and not one you want in your fantasy rotation while the Mariners are still working on it. Those of you in keeper or dynasty leagues should hold onto him, but make sure he’s on your bench until he starts figuring things out. If you’re in a redraft league, however, you can go ahead and release him.

Hold: Drew Smyly, Rays

The Rays and fantasy owners alike took a huge hit when it was announced that Smyly had a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Now there’s some hope for his 2015 future. Additional tests showed that the tear wasn’t nearly as bad as initially believed, and won’t require surgery to repair. The most optimistic timeline has Smyly returning shortly after the All-Star break, while the backend of the timetable would have him on the mound sometime in August. Either way, those of you with a DL spot to spare would be wise to use it on Smyly for the time being. The lefty started the year on the DL, but when he made his return he looked like a potential star in the making. In 16 2/3 innings he had a 2.70 ERA, 0.78 WHIP and 21 strikeouts. Remember, he was just as good for the Rays as David Price was for the Tigers after the two were swapped for one another at the trade deadline last season. If you eventually need a DL spot for another player, you can cut Smyly then at no loss to your roster, but there’s no reason to let that spot go unoccupied. Smyly could end up paying huge dividends late in the season if he can return when expected.


Prospect Watch

Julio Urias, Dodgers

Quick, what were you doing when you were nine months removed from your 18th birthday? I know I was putting the finishing touches on a solid high school baseball career and getting ready for one final summer at home before heading off to college. Wait, what’s that, Julio? Oh, you say you’re dominating Double-A hitters? Yeah, that’s cool, I guess.

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While most of us were doing  typical 18-year-old things, Urias headed into this season as a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball. The lefty already had 38 professional starts under his belt, starting out in the Dodgers’ organization at Low-A Great Lakes as a 16-year-old after the team signed him out of Mexico. From that point forward, he has been on a steady trajectory to be a frontline starter in the majors. He’s at Double-A Tulsa this year, but it would be a shock if he spent the entire season at that level. In 36 innings, he has a 3.00 ERA 2.61 FIP, 0.94 WHIP and 46 strikeouts against nine walks. Urias has a fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and features a curveball and changeup that profile as plus-pitches once he gets to the majors. It’s almost unprecedented for an 18-year-old to have a trio of pitches as good as Urias’s, but his repertoire makes him one of the most feared pitchers in the entire minor leagues. Let’s take a look at the curveball for proof.

It’s no surprise that the Dodgers are closely monitoring his workload, and it’s unlikely that he’ll make a meaningful, if any, impact in the majors this season. Those of you in keeper leagues want to monitor his progress, however. This is a guy you want on the cheap for 2016.

Two-start pitchers

  1. Madison Bumgarner
  2. Dallas Keuchel
  3. Tyson Ross
  4. David Price
  5. Danny Salazar
  6. Jake Odorizzi
  7. Shane Greene
  8. Carlos Martinez
  9. Julio Teheran
  10. Tanner Roark
  11. Wei-yin Chen
  12. Chase Anderson
  13. Tim Lincecum
  14. Odrisamer Despaigne
  15. Bartolo Colon
  16. Jered Weaver
  17. Wandy Rodriguez
  18. J.A. Happ
  19. Matt Shoemaker
  20. Jesse Chavez
  21. Tsuyoshi Wada
  22. Drew Hutchison
  23. Charlie Morton
  24. Nathan Eovaldi
  25. Joe Kelly
  26. Jesse Hahn
  27. Chris Tillman
  28. Clay Buchholz
  29. John Danks
  30. Brett Anderson
  31. Roenis Elias
  32. Kyle Lohse
  33. Adam Warren
  34. David Phelps
  35. Jeff Locke
  36. Jeremy Guthrie
  37. Jason Marquis
  38. Shaun Marcum
  39. Ricky Nolasco
  40. Scott Feldman
  41. Eddie Butler
  42. Hector Noesi
  43. Williams Perez
  44. Phil Klein

GIF of the Week

The Pirates' Gerrit Cole just missed out on being one of our Pitchers of the Week after striking out 10 Mets in 8 1/3 scoreless innings. You probably already know that Cole has a filthy slider. Eric Campbell knew that, too, but it didn’t stop him from flailing at this offering from Cole.

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