Sonny Gray made professional baseball look easy during a cameo with the Double-A Midland Rockhounds last season when he allowed only one run in 20 innings of work. It has been more of a struggle for the Oakland A's 2011 first-round draft pick in 2012 and he admitted that he is still learning the art of pitching and has a lot of areas he wants to improve upon as a player.
Gray hasn't completed his first full season in the minors yet. He has spent the entire year with the Rockhounds and is 3-7 with a 4.72 ERA. The 22-year-old was the first member of his A's draft class to play above the Double-A level. He and recently promoted catcher Beau Taylor are currently the only members of their class above the A-ball level.
Although his ERA and win-loss record are disappointing, Gray's numbers aren't all bad. His 89.2 innings pitched are third on the team behind Murphy Smith and Gary Daley. Gray has done a great job of keeping the baseball in the ballpark. Among Midland's current starters, he is the only pitcher to allow fewer than five home runs (four). He has struck-out 60 hitters and has compiled the best WHIP amongst the Rockhounds' current starters. Gray has induced more than two groundouts for every flyout.
A statistic Gray is not proud of is his 45 walks, which is the second-most on the team.
"I've struggled with walks all year," Gray said.
"My fastball command hasn't been there even though we've worked on it. Pitching every fifth day is different from what I'm used to. Double-A as a whole is a lot different than college. I've just got to make adjustments, get in a routine and throw a lot more strikes."
A star during his three-year career with Vanderbilt, Gray has high expectations for himself and he isn't satisfied with the numbers he has put up for the Rockhounds this season. However, he knows that a career isn't built in one year.
"I was hoping I'd perform better than I have thus far. But I feel like I'm getting better and learning a lot about pro ball," Gray said.
"This is my first full season and the Texas League is not an easy league. At the Futures Game there were four guys on the World Team and four on the US Team that are all in the division. Hopefully the rest of the season I can continue to get better and develop and get some wins to help the team out."
Last fall, Gray worked with A's pitching coaches at the organization's Instructional League to fine-tune his pitching mechanics and he is continuing to hone those mechanics this season.
"We worked on my finish some. Specifically sticking my front leg and not spinning off so much," Gray said.
"That's what we're continuing to work on now. Hopefully with that will come a lot more strikes and a lot more wins."
Gray has had success throughout his baseball career, starting at Smyrna High School in Tennessee. After high school, he was selected by the Chicago Cubs in the 27th round of the 2006 draft but decided not to sign and instead stayed close to home at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
His family had a lot to do with that decision.
"College is something my family has felt strongly about for a long time," Gray said.
"Obviously getting an education at Vanderbilt along with their baseball program and coaches made the decision easy for me. I don't think I was ready for pro ball anyway. I definitely got better at Vanderbilt and loved the experience. I don't regret going there at all."
Gray immediately made an impact once he arrived on campus. He was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American Team after his first year. He went 5-1 with a 4.30 ERA and had a team-high five saves for the Commodores.
That year Gray also pitched for the USA National Team and had a 3-1 record with a 0.75 ERA. In 24 innings, he allowed four runs and struck out 27 batters.
Gray enjoyed getting to travel around the world while playing the sport he loves.
"The traveling was awesome," he said. "We went to Japan a couple of times and a lot of places in Asia.
"I got to play with the best collegiate players in the country including [current Midland teammate and 2010 A's top pick] Michael Choice. There was a lot of talent across the board. The people you get to meet and the things you get to do is something I'll take pride in and remember for a long time."
His sophomore season, Gray earned All-SEC Second Team honors while going 10-5 with a 3.48 ERA and 113 strikeouts. He was also a 2010 All-SEC Academic selection.
After an outstanding second summer with the USA National Team, Gray was named Baseball America's Summer Player of the Year. His best accomplishment was winning the semi-final game at the World University Championships in Tokyo, allowing Japan just two runs in seven innings. Gray dominated batters in two seasons with Team USA. He had a combined 6-1 record with a miniscule 0.56 ERA.
Gray's junior year at Vanderbilt was memorable in more than one sense. He was named Second Team All-SEC for the second consecutive season, and he led the SEC with 132 strikeouts. Most importantly, he helped lead the Commodores to their first-ever appearance in the College World Series.
"That [going to the CWS] was one of my main goals when I went to Vanderbilt," Gray said.
"They've had talented teams before but stumbled in Regionals. We were close my freshman and sophomore years and finally got there during my last year. I think that school will be back to the College World Series many more times in the future."
After being selected 18th overall by the A's last June, Gray signed with Oakland on July 25. Despite Vanderbilt's rich history of producing talented pitchers, Gray was just the second Vanderbilt pitcher to be selected in the first round of the draft, joining Tampa Bay Rays star David Price.
"It was cool," Gray said about being a first-round pick. "It's something you look forward to. I was hoping to be drafted as high as possible by a good organization and I think I got the best of both worlds there.
"It was an exciting time leading up to my junior year. However you have to put it to the side and still be able to play college baseball. I was expecting to both get drafted and perform well. Lucky for me, I was able to have a good junior season and then got taken by Oakland. I've loved every minute of it."