Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees

Sonny Gray gets needed change of scenery with deal to Reds

The New York Yankees have been trying to deal Sonny Gray, and now the right-hander is on his way to the Cincinnati Reds.

It was no secret the New York Yankees wanted to trade Sonny Gray, with multiple rumored suitors. But the Cincinnati Reds emerged in recent days, and Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports has reported a deal to send the right-hander to Cincinnati is close to being finalized.

The primary piece headed to the Yankees in the deal is infielder Shed Long, who MLB.com had ranked as the No. 7 prospect in the Reds’ system. New York will also get a draft pick, and possibly another piece.

After being acquired from the Oakland Athletics at the 2017 non-waiver trade deadline, Gray had a solid 3.72 ERA over 11 starts for the Yankees. But there were signs of a looming correction during that time (4.87 FIP), and it came to full fruition last year with a career-worst 4.90 ERA and 2.16 K/BB ratio over 30 appearances (23 starts; 130.1 innings).

Some pitchers struggle under the microscope of New York, and Gray stands out as the most recent example. His appearances were split equally home and road last year, with a 6.98 ERA at home and a 3.17 ERA on the road. Yankee Stadium is very hitter friendly, but then again so is Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. So it’s worth wondering if Gray will realize a notable improvement in a move to the National League.

Gray remained a ground ball-oriented pitcher in 2018, with a 50 percent ground ball rate only a slight drop-off from previous seasons. His fly ball rate (27.1 percent) was right in line with his career, and his home run/fly ball rate (13.3 percent) actually dropped almost two percent compared to 2017.

But opposing hitters seemed to find a fruitful approach against Gray last year, with an upward spike in batted balls to the opposite field (27.2 percent; 21.1 percent in 2017). Coincidentally, or probably not, more balls hit to the opposite field practically paralleled an increase in hard contact rate (35.5 percent; 28 percent in 2017).

Is there something behind that?

Looking deeper at FanGraphs, the answer is yes. In 2017 just over 55 percent of Gray’s pitches were fastballs, to go with 13.9 percent curveballs and 14.9 percent change-ups. In 2018, Gray threw just 35.1 percent fastballs while throwing 22.8 percent curveballs and just 4.7 percent change-ups. He also incorporated a cutter he previously hardly used, throwing that pitch 20.4 percent of the time.

So it seems obvious Gray needs to ditch the cutter, or a least use it less, throw a more traditional fastball more often, use his curveball less and re-incorporate a change-up. On that note, Derek Johnson is the Reds’ new pitching coach. He was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt from 2002-2012, and Gray made himself into a first-round pick under Johnson’s tutelage.

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Gray needed a change of scenery, and the Yankees were happy to oblige once they found a deal they could live with. Cincinnati doesn’t stand out as an ideal place to rebound, but reuniting with Johnson and joining a refurbished starting rotation (with Tanner Roark and Alex Wood) gives the Reds a good chance to get more of Gray’s best form.

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