Although he technically used up his rookie-eligibility last season, Sonny Gray will still be the newest kid in the Oakland A's rotation if he makes the roster out of spring training. The A's top pick in 2011 had a whirlwind 2013 campaign. He began the year in Triple-A Sacramento and finished as the only starter in the A's rotation to get the call twice in the team's five-game playoff series against the Detroit Tigers. In between, Gray emerged as one of the top young starters in the American League.
Going into the 2013 season, Gray was somewhat of a question-mark. His first full professional season in 2012 was uneven. Pitching mostly for Double-A Midland, Gray struggled with his mechanics and with the location of his pitches. The result was a mediocre 4.14 ERA and a 99:58 K:BB in 148 innings with the RockHounds. Gray finished the year with Triple-A Sacramento, allowing four runs in four innings in his one start with the River Cats.
A lot more had been expected of Gray, who came to the A's in the 2011 as one of the most polished pitchers available in that year's draft. Oakland started Gray's professional career at the Double-A level in 2011 (minus a two-inning spot start in Arizona shortly after he signed), and he allowed just one run in his first 20 innings with the RockHounds. Many pundits speculated that Gray would reach the big leagues sometime early in the 2012 season.
Although Gray's results were stellar during his pro debut in 2011, the A's felt Gray wasn't a finished product. In between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the A's minor league pitching staff worked with Gray to change the finish on his throwing motion. Once the 2012 season started, they also had him throw more change-ups in counts that he would normally throw his fastball or his devastating curveball. Gray was never entirely comfortable with those changes. Rather than raring back and going after hitters, Gray found his attention split between the batter and his own mechanics. That led to a season that saw him walk nearly three-and-a-half batters per nine innings pitched.
Towards the end of the 2012 season, Gray started to get back to what made him so effective at Vanderbilt, and the results showed. He cut his walks by more than a walk per nine innings and posted a 3.34 ERA in July and a 3.72 ERA in August. Over the off-season, new A's minor league pitching coordinator Scott Emerson encouraged Gray to continue to focus on his strengths as a pitcher.
"He was one of the guys I liked who got my mindset back to where I didn't worry about anything and just focused on getting people out," Gray said during a media session on the Friday before the A's annual FanFest. "That helped me."
Gray carried that mindset into his 2013 season, and the results were immediate. After throwing the ball well during spring training, Gray was assigned to Triple-A Sacramento. He got off to a quick start with the River Cats and never looked back. In 17 pre-All Star game starts, Gray had a 2.99 ERA and a 107:36 K:BB over 102 innings. He was named to the Pacific Coast League's All-Star team, although he had to miss the game when he was recalled to the big leagues.
The biggest difference for Gray between his 2012 and 2013 seasons was his approach.
"I think being able to be myself a little bit last year [made the biggest difference]," Gray said. "I focused more last year on just getting people out, no matter what it was or how it looked like. Just getting people out and go back to competing. Last year, that was what our focus was for myself and the organization. Hopefully, we'll continue to do that."
Since the draft, Sonny Gray has drawn comparisons to former A's ace Tim Hudson. Both pitchers are small right-handers with excellent sinking fastballs, good breaking balls and an aggressive approach on the mound. Hudson made his major-league debut at age 23 with the A's in 1999. In 136.1 innings with the A's that season, Hudson had a 142 ERA+ and a 2.13 K:BB. During his age 23 season, Gray pitched fewer innings with the A's than Hudson did in 1999, but he had similar results to Hudson. Gray's ERA+ was 140 and his K:BB was actually significantly better (3.35). Their HR/9 rates were almost identical (Gray's was 0.6 and Hudson's was 0.5).
Hudson posted a 113 ERA+ and won 20 games during his age 24 season. Expecting any pitcher to win 20 games is a stretch, but if Gray puts together a season similar to Hudson's 2000 campaign, the A's should be in a similar position at the end of the 2014 regular season as they were 14 years earlier.
Gray made his major-league debut as a reliever on July 10 last season. He made two appearances out of the bullpen with the A's, striking out six over four innings before being sent back to Triple-A to get more innings. After three starts with the River Cats in late July/early August, Gray was summoned back to Oakland, this time as a starter. He would remain in the A's rotation for the rest of the season, helping the A's finish off their AL West division title run. In 10 regular season starts with the A's, Gray had a 2.85 ERA and a 61:19 K:BB.
Gray enjoyed the freedom that he experienced in the big leagues, where pitchers are encouraged to focus on results and not on process.
"You can get caught-up [in the minor leagues] over-analyzing everything that you do," Gray said. "You're not really focused on just making your pitch and getting the hitter out. For me, it's really hard to try to focus on mechanics and stuff and focus on getting the hitter out. It's a different mindset for me."
The right-hander pitched so well during the final months of the season that the A's made him their Game Two starter in the American League Division Series. Matched up with former AL Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander, Gray tossed eight scoreless inning in a must-win game for the A's. The A's then turned to Gray again in Game Five, choosing him over AL All-Star Bartolo Colon. Gray didn't have the same results in his second post-season start, but he still gave the A's a chance to win a game they would lose, 3-0.
Part of the reason the A's trusted Gray with two important post-season starts was the confidence he displayed during his regular season starts in the big leagues. Gray wasn't intimidated by the big stage of the post-season or by facing a pitcher of Verlander's caliber.
"I went in last year knowing – especially during the playoffs – that if I go right after guys like I have pretty much always done, I can find success," Gray said. "I had to have that mindset of going right after guys and showing them your best stuff and seeing if they can hit or not.
"That's how my approach has always been – to try to attack people as much as possible and try to let the game play out like that. You have guys behind you to make plays. If you make your pitches, more times than not, it's going to go your way."
Gray suffered a broken thumb on his left (non-pitching) hand during the Game Five outing. That injury forced him to take a little more time this off-season to rest, but he feels ready for the 2014 season.
"The way I have been approaching it is really the same preparation as last year," Gray said. "Last year, I felt really good going into spring training. I felt really good coming out of spring training and starting off in Sacramento. And I felt really good throughout the season.
"For me, I have approached it the same way and have continued the same off-season workouts. The same conditioning. The same throwing. Hopefully, I'll continue going into spring training feeling good."
Gray is one of six pitchers in camp with a legitimate claim on a spot in the A's starting rotation. Of the six, all but the newly signed Scott Kazmir have minor league option years remaining, meaning that the A's won't have to make any rotation decisions based on option status. Given how well Gray pitched down-the-stretch with the A's, he is a strong favorite to be in the team's Opening Day rotation, but he will still need to show that aggressiveness that helped him shine in 2013.