Twitter is never the best forum for reasonable discussion, especially when it comes to the Pittsburgh Pirates. There’s a lot of passion but also a lot of vitriol. When the times are good everyone is happy, when times are bad…maybe get off Twitter for awhile. During the trade deadline, fans on Twitter tend to latch on to trading for one specific player. The idea gains traction and all of sudden everyone is talking about acquiring this one player. This season Twitter has selected Sonny Gray as the biggest and best target for the Pirates.
At first glance, a trade for Sonny doesn’t make any sense. The New York Yankees are very much in contention and wouldn’t want to trade a starter. Normally that would be true but Gray has not been good for the Yankees. He has an ERA over five, experiencing career, or almost career worsts in WHIP, launch angle, K/BB, ground-ball rate, hard-hit rate, H/9, and BABIP. The Yankees can afford, because they can afford anything, to keep a struggling Gray on their staff and it shouldn’t hurt their playoff chances too much.
The Yankees will take a hard look when they reach the playoffs on whether he belongs in the playoff rotation. Gray is currently the fourth best starter on the team. Trading him could be the best bet for New York. It would make room for another starter that may be more effective. Moving Gray is an unlikely move but stranger things have happened in baseball.
What’s wrong with Sonny Gray?
If Sonny sucks so bad in New York why would Pittsburgh want him? This time the answer isn’t “Ray Searage is a wizard”, the much simpler answer is home/road splits. In the tiny ballpark of Yankee Stadium, Sonny Gray has an abysmal 6.80 ERA, 1.791 WHIP, .296 opposing average (OppA), and a .894 OPS. Only one qualified (innings pitched) pitcher in 2018 has given up a higher average than that (across the full season), Jason Hammel. When Gray is on the road he looks competent; 3.62 ERA, 1.189 WHIP, .237 OppA, and a .647 OPS. His K/BB even goes up from 1.29 to 3.75. That’s a legitimate pitcher, that’s the guy the Yankees traded for last year.
Sonny’s “luck” (BABIP) is almost exactly the same on the road and at home, which should lead us to two possible reasons for his struggles:
- Sonny pitches differently in Yankee Stadium to try and limit cheap home runs.
- Sonny pitches the same but the dimensions of the ballpark are biting him in the ass.
Gray has given up six more homers at home than on the road but only two of those bombs could be labeled a Yankee Stadium product.
All the other homers given up have been 400+ foot bombs.
The drastic home/road splits carry over to Gray’s ability to strike out batters and control the ball. With a quick trip to baseballsavant.com, MLB’s free database of MLB statcast data, we can find Gray’s heat maps when pitching away and at home.
As long as you’re not color blind you should be able to tell that Sonny is clearly pitching differently in Yankee Stadium than anywhere else. It appears he is less willing to attack the strike zone and refuses to go the far side of the plate where it would be easier for hitters to launch a ball to right field. To his credit, Gray hasn’t allowed a home run to straightaway right at home.
There could be a pitch selection aspect to Gray’s struggles as well. He’s throwing more curves, fewer fastballs, and added an extremely ineffective cutter. However, given Gray’s success on the road, the park venue is the likely culprit for Gray’s bad times.
Could the Pirates actually help Sonny Gray?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have become famous over the last few years for being able to help struggling pitchers, especially those from New York. A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova were both former Yankees that struggled and were able to revive their careers in Pittsburgh. As previously mentioned, Gray has moved away from his fastball in New York in favor of a cutter. When Gray was successful he was throwing his fastball more than half the time, which would be a perfect fit in Pittsburgh. The Pirates throw the second most fastballs in the majors (61.8%).
At PNC Park, Sonny wouldn’t have to worry about giving up cheap home runs. He’d be able to go back to the pitching profile that made him a success in Oakland. We know that Gray pitches better away from Yankee stadium in bigger parks, so his value should increase just by playing half his games in a different location. This could be the easiest pitcher that Ray Searage has ever “fixed”.
Would trading for Sonny Gray be worth it?
So far, everything has been mostly straightforward. Now it’s time to discuss if trading for Gray would even be a good idea for the Pirates. Obviously, it’s always good to add a legitimate arm to the rotation and Gray would probably slot in as the number two guy. In baseball, there’s no such thing as too much pitching depth as an injury is just around the corner for any pitcher. Sonny would clearly elevate the team but is he really worth it?
The Pirates are currently 54-51. They stand two and a half games back of the wildcard and seven back of the division. After a disastrous June, the Buccos are surprisingly in this thing. The team is surging and look poised to make an actual playoff push. Winning the division is unlikely since the Chicago Cubs just added Cole Hamels to their rotation and they have the best run-differential in the National League for a reason. The Wild Card is well within reach. It will be a tough fight between the eight teams within striking distance. Adding Gray improves the Pirates chances at a wildcard spot. Pittsburgh would also get Gray for all of 2019. Depending on how the young team develops the Pirates could be looking like a legitimate division contention. However, Gray is a free agent after 2019.
The way the Pirates system is built it would their best chance at World Series contention is in 2020 and beyond. The only players between now and then that will definitely not be with the team are Francisco Cervelli, Ivan Nova, Jordy Mercer, Sean Rodriguez, David Freese, and Corey Dickerson. That’s it: two bench pieces, an aging starter, an aging catcher with an injury history, a gets the job done shortstop and a legitimate outfielder. By 2020, prospects Kevin Kramer, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Mitch Keller, Taylor Hearns, Austin Meadows, and Ke’Bryan Hayes should all have made their debuts and could be starters. Not every one of those players is going to make it but the chances that they are all busts is unlikely. The current Pirates that haven’t been listed yet should be entering their age 27 to 30 seasons. The time frame is well known as prime baseball playing years.
Which brings us back to Sonny Gray and his expiring contract in 2019. The Pirates have to ask themselves is bringing in Gray worth the pieces that they would lose for future seasons? When Gray was traded last year the Yankees gave up three prospects. They were ranked 67th, 98th, and unranked in MLB’s Top 100. That was when Gray was looking good with an ERA in the threes and had an extra year of control. This season Gray is not as good and has one less year of control.
Trades are hard to predict, especially when starters are involved. Perhaps the Pirates could trade Ke’Bryan Hayes (#55 on the MLB’s Top 100) and a lottery player or Shane Baz (#98) and two lesser prospects. Giving up Hayes or Baz could be detrimental to the 2020 team, or not prospects aren’t guaranteed. Adding Gray means that one of the younger arms would be booted out of the rotation. That could mean a lost year and a half of development.
There isn’t a clear answer. Twitter will always say “Trade now, win now!” but that’s how teams end up like the Detroit Tigers. They trade, trade, trade and then pretty soon they don’t have any prospects to support the team. That’s not to say that trading for Gray is a bad idea, the Pirates can potentially fix him and go on a run. It would be nice to enjoy playoff baseball again. The front office needs to weigh their options, determine how much it would cost to get Sonny Gray and make a decision from there. Even without Sonny Gray, the Pirates seem poised on the cusp of interesting baseball in one way or another.