At his best, Sonny Gray is among the game’s elite pitchers. If the Oakland Athletics are to capture what the team anticipates to be a rebound season, they will need precisely that.
Gray followed up a third-place finish in the 2015 American League Cy Young race with what was undoubtedly his worst season as a pro, finishing 5-11 with a 5.69 ERA. Now, with expectations at a career low, the 27-year-old hurler believes he is primed for a bounce back season, including the reclamation of his perch at the peak of the Oakland rotation.
With the emergence of Kendall Graveman (10-11, 4.11 ERA in 2016) as a top-of-the-rotation starter, and stellar rookie campaigns from Jharel Cotton (2-0, 2.15 ERA) and Sean Manaea (7-9, 3.86 ERA), the A’s rotation is a legitimate ace short of being among the tops in the AL. That is what Gray expects himself to be, and what his teammates expect from him.
Manager Bob Melvin is among those who have placed their faith in a return to ace-like form for the 2011 first-round pick:
“My expectations are always that he is one of the premier pitchers in the game. Everybody is going to go through a down season, if you’re around long enough. … But, I think the really good ones take that and learn from it, take a little bit of a half-step backwards and move forward.”
Injuries had much to do with the All-Star’s down year. A pair of trips to the disabled list held him to just 117 innings, his fewest since a 12-game foray into the league in 2013.
Those injury-caused absences were a source of pain for the Tennessee righty:
“It was frustrating. You miss going out there and pitching and competing. It makes you want to get back out there.”
Gray, whose career worsts also included losses, ERA, home runs allowed (18) and WHIP (1.496), said that the “snowball” of negatives began even before he was an Opening Day scratch due to illness. Though he would offer no particulars, he said that minor ailments dating as far back as last season’s Spring Training marked that snowball’s formation.
He is confident that will not be the case this season, as he said through all his workouts through the winter he did not miss a beat.
Along with seeing his rehab through to completion well after the season was over, Gray made minor tweaks to his mechanics once he reached full health. Those tweaks will likely be non-visible to the eyes of a layman, he claims, but adjustments as minimal as lowering his hands three inches would breed a positive affect on the overall control and effectiveness of his stuff.
“I feel strong in my lower half, and in taking some of the movement out of my mechanics. … I feel more compact in the way the ball is coming out.”
Joining Melvin among those with the utmost confidence in a return of Gray, two-time All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt extended a sentiment that is likely echoed throughout the halls of the Oakland Coliseum — this team will go as far as the pitching will take it.
The man pitcher Daniel Mengden referred to as the captain offered little doubt in regards to the former Cy Young front-runner:
“He’s definitely going to bounce back. We’ve been talking throughout the winter, and he says he’s been feeling good and been working hard. Watching him play catch a little bit, he looks like Sonny.”
With a clean bill of health and new grasp on his once dominant stuff, the final hurdle in Gray’s return is overcoming the memories of the season past. As the skipper is adamant amount pointing out, a baseball season is full of ebbs and flows, and even his years of overpowering control of the game, Gray, like all pitchers, has encountered the valleys.
The question is: can he have a bad game or two, or three, consecutively without coming face to face with the demons of the year gone?
He has embraced that query as well, acknowledging that the positives of 2016 were there to be wrangled, but the rest was left in the rear view:
“Once that was over and once that season was done, it’s one of those things that you don’t want to turn back and look at anymore. You take your time to reflect, and take what was good out of it, but other than that there’s no need to dwell on it.”