For Sonny Gray, it’s a sort of homecoming

2019-01-22 sonnygray
Sonny Gray didn’t have many reasons to smile as a Yankee, unless he was on the road . . .

Yankee Stadium old and new alike haven’t been for everyone. Few showed it more harshly than Sonny Gray, who won’t have it to kick him around anymore. The Yankees finally brought off a trade that sent Gray to the Reds with minor league relief pitcher Reiver Sanmartin for second base prospect Shed Long and a competitive-balance draft pick for later this year.

The deal became a three-way trade when the Yankees promptly shed Long upon the Mariners for minor league outfielder Josh Stowers, who played last year one level lower than Long. Leaving them room on their 40-man roster, the deal now has some wondering whether the Yankees might make a play for free-agent starter and former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel.

As noted by MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon, Gray didn’t have a choice in his actual trade destination, but once the deal was done and the Reds would be his new team, he jumped on the chance to sign a three-year contract extension with the Reds totaling $30.5 million, to kick in after his current deal expires. The answers seem simple enough: if the Reds wanted him that badly, the feeling was mutual.

Gray grew up in Tennessee, outside Nashville, and his father often took him to Reds games, where he enjoyed both the baseball and the Skyline Chili sold at Great American Ballpark. And the Reds’ pitching coach now is Derek Johnson, who’s known Gray since the righthander was fourteen and who coached him at Vanderbilt University. For Gray putting on a Reds uniform is a sort-of homecoming.

Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly famous for being a comfort to righthanded pitchers, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more oppressive home-road split than Gray recorded last year. At Yankee Stadium he pitched fifteen games with a ghoulish 6.98 earned run average. On the road, Gray pitched fifteen games with a superb 3.17 ERA. At home he had a 1.98 walks/hits per inning pitched rate; on the road, a 1.16 WHIP. Batters hit .318 against Gray in Yankee Stadium but .226 against him on the road.

If you bring aboard Gray’s overall performance as a Yankee, which he became near the July 2017 non-waiver trade deadline, his home ERA was 6.55 and his road ERA was 2.84.

There will always be those players who succumb to the pressure of pitching in Yankee Stadium in the Yankees’ pinstripes with all the franchise’s history and expectations (of all the cliches about the Yankees the truest one is that they consider seasons failures when they don’t get to the World Series), but by his own admission Gray can’t figure out what made him such a bust in Yankee Stadium but a comparative smash on the road.

“I’m not going to lie,” he told a conference call with reporters after the trade announcement. “I felt comfortable taking the mound. I felt good. It just didn’t work out. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer.”

Gray has known deeper sorrows than Yankee Stadium. His father was killed in an automobile accident on the same 2004 day, when Gray was fourteen, that Gray went out as a high school freshman and threw four touchdown passes in a football game. The least applicable question you can present regarding him is his makeup.

He spoke about his father briefly, too. “I know he’s looking down with the biggest smile on his face right now,” Gray said. “He was a huge Reds fan. That was my immediate reaction was looking back and me growing up as a kid and him having Reds hats on everywhere we went. That was a cool trip down memory lane for me, for sure.”

What makes the Reds think Gray will thrive in a home park that’s even more cozy for hitters than Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch? For one thing—and this may surprise those who saw Gray last season and decided he was one of the classic Yankee flops—FanGraphs has figured out that five pitchers threw 100 innings or more with 20 percent plus strikeout rates and 50 percent or better ground ball rates . . . and one of them was Gray, with a 21.1 percent strikeout rate and an exactly 50 percent ground ball rate in 130.1 innings of work.

There’s also the Derek Johnson factor. “I’ve known D.J. since I was fourteen years old,” Gray said. “He knows what makes me go. He definitely knows what I’m about.” And the feeling is mutual.

“I really think that Sonny’s best attribute is how competitive he is,” Johnson told Sheldon. “You’re talking about a guy who blew through the minor leagues and became a quality major leaguer early. I think it’s not only a testament to his ability, but also his drive, his competitiveness. He’s almost a born leader. It shows on the field, and I’m just really excited about those traits coming back out and him doing his thing.”

When Gray came up with the Athletics in 2013 he had a couple of bullpen appearances and a return trip to the minors, but they brought him back that August, made him their fifth starter, and he ended up pitching well enough including back-to-back postseason spot clinchers, the 2013 game that clinched the American League West (SONNY WITH A CHANCE OF STRIKEOUTS said one banner hung from a ballpark rail, when Gray started Game Two of the ALDS) and the 2014 game that clinched a wild card.

Gray even finished third in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting in 2015, when Keuchel (then with the Astros) won the prize. He had a solid fastball and a terrific array of breaking balls including a changeup he can throw up to 88 mph and a cutter that almost hits 92. But in 2016, after two seasons making a case as the A’s arguable staff ace, he had two serious disabled list residencies including elbow and forearm inflammation and a right trapezius muscle strain earlier. He pitched well enough to start 2017 that the Yankees found him attractive in the first place.

When he pitched poorly Gray never shied from holding himself accountable, even when the Yankees moved him to the bullpen for a spell last year, but he couldn’t bring himself to say whether or not the Yankee Stadium spotlight, which sears as often as not, got the better of him.

“It’s no secret [2018] didn’t go as good for me as you would like,” Gray told the reporters on the conference call. “But at the end of the day, I showed up every day and was ready to put in the work. I honestly think you can go through some hardships at times and come out the other end better than you ever were. That’s honestly how I feel. I learned a lot [in 2018] . . . unfortunately, I got to sit and watch a little more than I would have liked. I got to learn a lot not only about baseball but about myself and about what makes me tick.”

The closest Gray would come to admitting he wasn’t comfortable pitching in Yankee Stadium was when he assessed his chances in Great American Ballpark, saying that park’s hitter coziness doesn’t exactly bother him. “I’m not huge into that type of stuff,” the 29-year-old righthander said. “You can pitch, and you’re comfortable pitching somewhere, you can go out and get the job done for sure.”

The A’s were thought to be interested in bringing Gray back, and the Giants were thought to be in play for him as well. But the Reds have him and Gray was happy enough about it to sign on for three years beyond 2019. (He would have become a free agent for the first time after the 2020 season.)

“I’ve got a really good feeling,” he said about joining the re-tooling Reds. “We’re trying to turn the corner here and trying to start winning a lot of games, and that’s exciting for me for sure. It just feels right for me. It just felt right the whole time.”

“He’s going to be out to try and prove something, not only to other people but to himself as well,” Johnson told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I think that when you have that type of player on your hands, some really good things can happen.”

Just make sure he doesn’t overdose on that Skyline Chili.

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