It’s Always “Sonny” in Cincinnati

Have you ever sifted through fantasy baseball rankings and wondered, “why can I draft this player so late?”  Or conversely, “why do I have to draft this player so early?” I’ve come across a ton of these players while preparing for 2020 fantasy drafts, and look forward to writing about a few before the season.

These pieces won’t take a massive analytical dive into why certain players are potential superstars (follow Connor Kurcon @ckurcon for some great advanced analytics pieces that I can’t provide), but rather why they could be the value pickups that will out-produce the cost on draft day.

Today, I’m going to take a look at the newly reborn arm in The Queen City who I feel is being undervalued – Sonny Gray.

New Lease on Life

Before we get into the baseball portion of this piece; did you ever think about how quirky Sonny Gray’s name is?  The words “sunny” and “gray” go together like Pedro and Don Zimmer.

I hope you laughed at that, you definitely didn’t.  Hit me up later for Dad jokes.  Anyways…

It’s not long ago when Sonny Gray was being written off by many in the baseball community after being left off the Yankees 2018 postseason roster.  A year and a half in the Bronx was plenty enough for all parties, with Brian Cashman openly admitting Gray was in need of a change of scenery.

After posting a 15-16 record and with a 4.51 ERA in 41 appearances in New York, Gray was shipped to the Cincinnati Reds as the result of a three-team trade.  Eventually, Gray would come to admit himself that he wasn’t a fit in the Big Apple.

Whatever issues Gray faced in pinstripes were quickly corrected at Great American Ballpark and with the Reds in 2019, where he posted an 11-8 record with a 2.87 ERA in 175.2 innings (31 starts).  He also posted a 10.52 K/9, which was over a two strikeout improvement from 2018 and the highest mark of his career, besting his 9.42 mark in an abbreviated 64.1 innings with Oakland in 2013.

Despite the career year from Gray, he’s currently being valued outside many top-100 ADP’s.  I believe Sonny Gray’s success is not only sustainable, but will be valuable to your fantasy squad for the 2020 season.

Average ADP’s and Projections

For context, FantasyPros consensus fantasy rankings list Sonny Gray as SP29, with an ADP of 108.  RotoChamp and Steamer actually paint bleaker outlooks for Gray, assessing him with ADP’s of 138 and 170, respectively, given their projections.

Steamer specifically projects Gray to take a moderate step back this season stat-wise, issuing him an anticipated line of 175 IP, 3.94 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 191 K’s, and 67 BB’s.

Reasons for Optimism

I’m not going to lie, I rostered a good amount of Sonny Gray in 2019.  Aside from taking that victory lap, I watched his starts very closely.  This was a completely different pitcher than the one booed off the Yankee Stadium bump.

Gray was in command and assertive in his pitch selection.  Hitters constantly looked off-balance and struggled to square him up, especially early in games.  He brought a different confidence to the mound which showed in his 2019 resume mentioned above.

I do expect Gray to take a small step back numbers-wise in 2020.  His 2.87 ERA hid a more modest 3.42 FIP and 3.65 xFIP.  But Gray has always been a slight over-performer when considering these analytics, given a career ERA/FIP/xFIP line of 3.53/3.69/3.70.

However, the improvements he made from 2018 to 2019 don’t seem to be accidental.  Gray joined the Patrick Corbin movement and started to rely much more on his slider, increasing the usage from 14.6% in ’18 to 21% in ’19.

Gray’s slider, simply put, can be devastating.  With a breaking ball spin rate in the 97th percentile among Major League pitchers, Gray induced more swings and misses than ever before after putting a heavy emphasis on improving the break on his out pitch.

In addition to his enhanced strikeout totals, Gray induced ground balls on 50.7 percent of balls put in play, allowing just 17 home runs in 175.1 innings in what was a homer-crazed environment and hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.  All of these stats show that Gray may not be as big a regression risk as some think.

Another huge sign of encouragement was his 2019 second half surge, where Gray posted a 2.12 ERA and a 0.976 WHIP while compiling 102 strikeouts over 85 innings.  He is still adjusting and still learning how to pitch, which means he probably hasn’t hit his ceiling.  No, he won’t put up a sub-2 ERA this season, but there is a lot to suggest he can maintain his second-half level of effectiveness.

Lest we not also forget the external factors that could impact Gray’s win total?  The offseason acquisitions of Mike Moustakas and Nick Castellanos should result in more runs scored, and I assume put him on the winning side of a few more decisions in 2020.

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