Between his disastrous starts, inability to adjust and unwillingness to take responsibility or be accountable for his own pitching, Sonny Gray wasn’t going to work out in New York.
When you combine Gray’s time with the Yankees for the last two months of 2017 and first four months of 2018, he was only given the equivalent of one full season for the Yankees to determine he wasn’t a fit for New York. After he was removed from the rotation, Brian Cashman openly admitted he was looking to move Gray right up until the day he was finally traded. Cashman said, “I don’t feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results” in regards to holding on to Gray for 2019 and beyond, so eventually, he dealt him to the Reds.
There’s a reason why the Yankees gave up three of their better prospects at the time for Gray and there’s a reason why the team let him start Game 1 of the 2017 ALDS and Game 4 of the 2017 ALCS. There’s a reason so many teams were connected to him this past offseason and why the Reds ultimately decided to trade for him and give him a $30.5 million extension upon acquiring him, completely disregarding his awful 2018 season. And there’s a reason why David Ortiz said the following about Gray back in 2015:
“The last few seasons, the toughest guy I’ve faced is Sonny Gray from Oakland. This kid’s stuff is legit … the first time I see this Gray kid on the mound, I can’t help but notice he’s 5’10” and skinny. He looks like the guy who fixes my computer at the Apple Store. I’m thinking, Here we go. This is gonna be fun. Then he took me for a ride, man. Fastball. Sinker. Slider. Curve … Whap. Whap. Whap. You have no idea what this kid is going to throw. He drives me crazy.”
The reason for all these things is because Gray has the ability, talent, stuff and repertoire to be a perennial Cy Young candidate. The pitcher Ortiz was talking about is the one who pitched to a 2.88 ERA over 491 innings in his first three seasons in the league and who shut out the Tigers over eight innings in Game 2 of the 2013 ALDS. That’s the pitcher the Yankees thought they were getting. That’s the pitcher I thought the Yankees were getting.
Last August, the Yankees pulled the plug on Gray as a starter after his embarrassing start against the eventual 47-win Orioles sent the Yankees into a downward spiral heading into their eventual four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox in Boston. When the Yankees finally had enough, Gray had pitched to the following line through 21 starts: 103.2 IP, 112 H, 65 R, 64 ER, 46 BB, 99 K, 13 HR, 5.64 ERA, 1.524 WHIP.
In his first season with the Reds, Gray has returned to the pitcher he was with the A’s, the pitcher the Yankees thought they were trading for. An All-Star for the first time in four years, Gray has a 2.92 ERA in 25 starts, a career-low hits-per-nine innings (6.6) and a career-high strikeouts-per-nine innings (10.6). Outside of New York, Gray has been the young, durable and controllable front-end starter Cashman has failed so many times to trade for in over decades, but while in New York, Gray was every bit as bad as J.A. Happ has been this season.
Once again, on Wednesday night, Happ put the Yankees in an early hole they were unable to climb out of, and for the 19th time in 25 starts, he failed to go six innings, something he has done once since June 6. Happ lasted only four innings in Oakland, giving up another pair of home runs, and making it now nearly a month since he provided the Yankees with one of his six quality starts.
Only a few times has Happ looked like the pitcher who went 9-0 in 11 starts for the Yankees after the deadline last season as he’s mostly looked like a soon-to-be, 37-year-old with a low-90s fastball whose only chance at success is with pinpoint control. In a season in which 20 percent of his starts have come against the Orioles, you would think his overall numbers would be somewhat respectable, but he has a 6.85 ERA against the team on pace to win 52 games. Here’s Happ’s season line after Wednesday’s loss:
129 IP, 141 H, 79 R, 79 ER, 37 BB, 105 K, 31 HR, 5.51 ERA, 1.380 WHIP.
Look familiar? Again, here’s Sonny Gray’s line when the Yankees pulled him from the rotation:
103.2 IP, 112 H, 65 R, 64 ER, 46 BB, 99 K, 13 HR, 5.64 ERA, 1.524 WHIP.
Happ has a better walk rate and a slightly better ERA, but his strikeouts-per-nine innings are lower and his home run rate is absurd. The lines are similar and everything about their seasons has been as well. So why is it that Happ continues to get the ball every fifth day, while Gray was banished to the bullpen and then dealt to Cincinnati with his value at an all-time low?
The answer can’t be because Happ’s under contract for next season because so was Gray, who was under contract for less money, is seven years younger than Happ and still has a future. The Yankees gave up on Gray for good after one calendar year and with two months left in the season, yet there haven’t been any rumors, whispers, rumblings or inklings of Happ losing his rotation spot.
The answer can’t be because there aren’t other starting options because going with an opener two days a week is better than Happ once a week, and there wasn’t any depth last season when Gray was removed either. When the Yankees stopped letting Gray start, they didn’t have pitching depth to turn to and had yet to steal the Rays’ opener strategy. But they still made the move knowing they would be taxing their bullpen and starting pitchers with much less ability and much weaker career resumes than Gray.
The answer can’t be because the division is locked up because home-field advantage is every bit as important as the division. The most likely scenario in the AL playoffs is a Yankees-Astros ALCS. They are going to be the 1- and 2-seeds and they are the two best teams in the league. Two years ago in the ALCS, the Astros went 4-0 at home and the Yankees went 3-0 at home. The Astros outscored the Yankees 15-3 in Houston and the Yankees outscored the Astros 19-5 in New York. This season the Astros are 45-16 at home and the Yankees are 49-20 at home, the best two home records in the AL. At the same time the Astros were about to lose on Wednesday night and give the Yankees a chance to create further separation in the standings, Happ was busy giving two-run home runs in the second and third innings in the eventual loss. The Yankees might have the division won, but the goal isn’t to win the division, it’s to win the World Series, and unless the Yankees have home-field advantage in the playoffs, that goal is going to be nearly impossible to accomplish.
Happ brings no value to the team right now. He’s not eating innings, he’s not keeping the team in games and he’s not working toward anything like a postseason start. There’s no way Happ can get a postseason start. No way. I would rather watch Luis Cessa get the ball in the postseason or have Cessa team up with Nestor Cortes for the first few innings of a playoff game than watch Happ ruin an October game for the second straight year.
The Yankees gave up on Gray for the season in 2018 and then gave up on him for good before 2019. The Yankees aren’t going to give up on Happ for good because of the money he’s owed, his stock being at an all-time low and him simply being untradeable given his age and contract. But they should give up on him for the season.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!