Why the A’s Sonny Gray is the 2016 CY Young

Since he burst on to the scene in 2013, Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Sonny Gray has been of the league’s best.

After posting an enviable 5-3 win-loss record with a 2.67 ERA in 10 starts that season, Gray has not looked back. The 2015 All-Star finished last season’s campaign with a 14-7 record, but the American League’s third-lowest ERA (2.73). Although his strike-out total was down a bit — 169 in 208 innings — Gray finished the AL CY Young race third, behind Toronto Blue Jays’ David Price and winner Houston Astros’ Dallas Keuchel.

This is the year that the 5-foot-10 right-hander will take the final step and bring Oakland its first CY Young winner since Barry Zito accomplished the feat in 2002.

Posting a career 35-21 win-loss record, with a 2.86 ERA, through 77 career starts — including his first three of 2016 — Gray has been the epitome of the term “ace”.

Sean Doolittle agrees whole-heartedly with that assessment, but thinks a pitcher is recognized as such for the wrong reasons. After a 5-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals on April 16, the closer said of Gray’s performance:

“When people talk about a guy being an ace, they talk about strikeouts and wins and stuff like that. But it’s games when you maybe don’t have your best stuff, the other team is running your pitch count up. To be able to get through six innings on a day like today, that was huge for us.”

Part of winning games as an ace includes pitching through limited run support, and Gray has done so admirably. Thus far in his career, the Tennessee native has received two or fewer runs of backing in 20 outings, with seven such games coming a year ago. Gray went 2-4 in those games — posting a 1.81 ERA — with both wins coming on shutouts.

When receiving support, Gray is nearly unbeatable. With three or more runs of offensive contribution he is 30-9, and a perfect 18-0 with six or more.

After scoring 694 runs last year, ninth in the American League, the front office added potency to the lineup in the offseason.

The offense has gotten off to a worrisome start, scoring 34 (AL No. 13) runs through the first 12 games of the year. With several proven bats starting off cool, though, the offense will warm up with the weather.

Additions of first baseman Yonder Alonso (career .271/.337/.390 slash), second baseman Jed Lowrie (.257/.327/.408) and left fielder Khris Davis (.248/.314/.488) bring runs difficult to come by in 2015. A combination of the AL’s fourth-worst team batting average (.221) and third-worst team slugging percentage (.338) being the main reasons for the 4.3 runs per game last year.

Along with sluggers Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt, adding just one run per nine innings pitched by the ace adds a minimum of three wins his total from last season. New back-end support from the bullpen will make leads lost previously stand.

The A’s front office acknowledged that 2015 bullpen, with its AL-worst ERA (4.63) and save percentage (52.8), needed to be restocked.

After adding former closers Ryan Madson and John Axford, now has a pair of potentially overpowering late-inning relievers to set up closer Doolittle (injured much of 2015).

For the 26 year-old, the road to the award will have started not in opening week, not even at the onset of Spring Training. The short right-hander’s 2016 season started mere weeks after the conclusion of the season prior. After a hip injury ended his season prior to his final start — an outing assumed by the last A’s CY Young winner — Gray dedicated himself to improved health and endurance in the offseason.

Gray told SFBay about his offseason workout, at Jan. 24’s Oakland A’s FanFest:

“I did a little less stretching and more hip stuff, core stuff. (I worked on) those body parts, because they have caused me a little bit of trouble in the past. We’re going to try to work those into the (normal) workouts.”

He added that the training was centered more on stabilization than strengthening, as the plan is to improve endurance and increase potency late in the season.

In his first two-plus seasons, Gray’s effectiveness has greatly decreased in the second half –21-6, 2.37 ERA prior to the All-Star break and 13-14, 3.38 ERA after it — with his worst work historically coming in the season’s final month — 4.11 ERA in September and October.

Improved health and endurance will allow the small-in-stature starter hold up into the season’s closing weeks, while additional runs and bullpen punch will help him get leads and hold them.

Gray has been one of the best pitchers in the game since he put on the green and gold for the very first time. Even on the Junior Circuit’s worst team (77-85) a year ago, he gathered 82 voting points (Keuchel 186) for the position’s most prestigious awards.

With a revamped squad around him, Gray will take the final leap in 2016 and claim that coveted CY Young Trophy.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.