There’s a reason why the Yankees gave up three of their better prospects for Sonny 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 why the Yankees let him keep starting all the way until August even though he was nearly a guaranteed loss every time he took the ball. There’s a reason so many teams were connected to him this offseason and why the Reds ultimately decided to trade for him and give him a $30.5 million extension following the trade, disregarding his awful 2018 season. And there’s a reason why David Ortiz said the following about Gray 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.
The Yankees essentially did get that pitcher … when they were on the road. When Gray was away from Yankee Stadium, he was his usual self, but when the Yankees were home, it was like watching Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS every start.
HOME (15 games, 11 starts)
59.1 IP, 78 H, 47 R, 46 ER, 35 BB, 45 K, 11 HR, 6.98 ERA, 1.904 WHIP
AWAY (15 games, 12 starts)
71.0 IP, 60 H, 26 R, 26 ER, 22 BB, 78 K, 3 HR, 3.17 ERA, 1.155 WHIP
At Yankee Stadium, opposing batters teed off on him like a collective MVP candidate (.318/.406/.527), while on the road, opposing batters hit him like a backup catcher (.226/.295/.320). Unfortunately, the Yankees couldn’t destroy the rest of their rotation by moving everyone around to accommodate Gray’s inability to pitch in the Bronx, so they instead made Austin Romine his personal catcher as if Gary Sanchez was the problem. When the hopeful magic trick of having Romine turn around Gray’s season proved ineffective, the Yankees continued to stick with the meaningless experiment. Two months into the season, Gray allowed five earned runs and put 11 runners on base in 3 2/3 innings against the Angels, and after the game, he said:
“I thought I commanded my two-seam well. I think it was my four-seam that every time I threw it, it kind of leaked back over the middle of the plate. Slider was good. Yeah, I think the stuff was good.”
Despite his actual performances and lack of accountability for his performance, the Yankees continued to let him start every five days in June and July, thinking somehow he would get back on track. It wasn’t until the day after the trade deadline (which happened to be the year to the day the Yankees made the deal to acquire him) that the organization said enough was enough.
In the middle of a three-game winning streak after finding out Aaron Judge would miss the majority of the remaining regular season, the Yankees had an afternoon game in the Bronx against the Orioles before going to Boston for a four-game series, which would decide the division. A win against the 23-59 Orioles would make the Yankees four games back of the Red Sox with a chance to erase the entire deficit over the coming weekend.
Gray started for the Yankees against the Orioles, having already beaten them three times during the season, and he began the game with a perfect 13-pitch first inning. In the second inning, Yankee Stadium Sonny Gray arrived:
Danny Valencia singled.
Chris Davis walked.
Trey Mancini singled and Valencia scored.
Caleb Joseph singled on a bunt.
Renato Nunez doubled and Davis and Mancini scored.
Breyvic Valera struck out.
Tim Beckham singled and Joseph and Nunez scored.
Jace Peterson singled.
Adam Jones lined into a double play.
Gray had given up a five runs in the second to a lineup featuring one player (Jones) who might start on any of the winning teams in the league and to a team who had recently traded away its best player in Manny Machado en route to a 115-loss season. Not only that, but it was a day game after a night game, and a day game after another loss for the the Orioles, who were going to have to fly to Texas after the game for a four-game series in the August Texas heat with 53 games left in their miserable season. In a must-have game and about as winnable of a game against about as a bad of opponent as there will ever be in Major League Baseball, Gray got absolutely rocked. The Yankees offense wasn’t out of the game yet, not against the Orioles pitching staff, but together, Gray and Aaron Boone pushed the game out of reach.
Gray returned for the third inning, probably because Boone didn’t want to burn his bullpen ahead of the Boston series, but also possibly because Boone displayed an inability to know what he was doing when it came to bullpen management all season, ultimately ruining the ALDS for his team. After retiring the first two batters, Gray allowed a solo home run, followed by a walk and a single. Boone went out to take the ball from Gray and that game marked the end for Gray as a Yankee.
Gray spent the last two months of the regular season in the bullpen, making just seven relief appearances and two spot starts over the final 56 games. He finished the season with 23 starts, only eight of which were “quality starts”. And in those 23 starts, seven times he allowed five or more earned runs and seven times he failed to pitch at least four innings. The Yankees went 11-12 when Gray started and 89-50 in all other games, winning 100 games despite Gray’s miserable season. He was left off the postseason roster, and the second the season ended, Brian Cashman went to work openly showing his displeasure in Gray’s performance and ending his Yankees tenure by saying things like “It hasn’t worked out thus far” and “I think that we’ll enter the winter, unfortunately, open-minded to a relocation” and “It’s probably best to try this somewhere else” and “Our intention is to move Sonny Gray and relocate him”. On Monday, Cashman finally traded Gray to the Reds for a prospect and a draft pick.
What started back on July 31, 2017 as the Yankees getting two-and-a-half years of control for a potential ace at a bargain price for three players who might never reach or be regular players in the majors, ended with Gray pitching to a 4.51 ERA in 195 2/3 regular-season innings for the Yankees to go along with a loss and no-decision in two postseason starts.
Sonny Gray’s tenure with the Yankees has ended. I’m happy it’s over.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!
The book details my life as a Yankees fan, growing up watching Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams through my childhood and early adulthood and the shift to now watching Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Judge and others become the latest generation of Yankees baseball. It’s a journey through the 2017 postseason with flashbacks to games and moments from the Brian Cashman era.
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