On Tuesday night, after Chris Archer fanned 15 in a win for the Tampa Bay Rays, I posted a tweet suggesting that Archer was making a case to start the All-Star Game for the American League. Two readers then ensued in a heated discussion about the merits of Archer versus Dallas Keuchel of the Houston Astros. And that's without mentioning Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners.
But the best starter in the American League right now may be Sonny Gray of the Oakland Athletics, your major league ERA leader. He threw another gem on Wednesday, allowing just two hits in eight scoreless innings against the Tigers, improving his season numbers to 7-2 with a 1.65 ERA. Opponents are hitting .186 against him, he's allowed zero runs or one run in seven of his 12 starts, he has given up just three home runs and he's second in the majors in innings pitched.
Gray burst on to the scene late in the 2013 season and had that dominant 1-0 victory over the Tigers in Game 2 of the division series. As a sophomore in 2014 he went 14-10 with a 3.08 ERA and threw 219 innings. Needing a victory on the final day of the 2014 season to clinch a playoff spot he pitched a six-hit shutout. The major area needed for improvement heading into 2015 was cutting down on his walks -- he averaged 3.0 per innings, not a major flaw, but a little high for an elite starter. Check. Even though he had a seven-walk start in early May against the Rangers, his walk rate is still down.
Gray is so fun to watch. He's not a big, intimidating force like so many young pitchers today, but a compact 5-foot-11 (maybe). He certainly throws hard enough -- his fastball has averaged 93.3 mph this season -- but there's a certain art to the way he pitches, mixing his two-seamer and four-seamer along with a slider, an occasional changeup and that great curveball that is his equalizer, the pitch that allows him to dominate lefties much like Hernandez's changeup does.
On this night, he relied a lot on his fastball, throwing it a season-high 72 times (out of 108 pitches). And with good reason, as it a little extra life, averaging another season-best 94.0 mph. His two hardest fastballs of the night both came against Miguel Cabrera in the first inning, a 2-2 heater clocked at 96.7 mph that Cabrera took for a ball and then a 3-2 one clocked at 96.1 that Cabrera swung at and missed. In the fourth, he got Cabrera to line out -- throwing him three fastballs. In the seventh, two more fastballs and Cabrera fouled out. Cabrera saw one offspeed pitch in those three at-bats.
Gray has actually thrown his curveball much less often this year, choosing instead to go with more sliders. His curveball percentage has decreased from 27 percent of his pitches to 14 percent. But look where he spots it:
The red boxes on the right are generally where he throws it against left-handed batters; those red boxes below the strike zone are where he likes to locate it against righties. Opponents are batting .095 against it (4-for-42, four singles).
Then there's this. He apparently threw a different kind of slider in this game. From John Shea's story in the San Francisco Chronicle:
"Sonny is something special," catcher Stephen Vogt said after Wednesday night’s 6-1 victory over the Tigers. "After the first inning, he said, 'Hey, I'm going to try to throw my slider like a cutter more,' and it ended up being 92 mph straight down."
ESPN Stats & Info had him throwing 22 sliders, with the Tigers going 1-for-7 against it.
The other interesting thing about Gray is that he induces a lot of weak contact. His strikeout rate ranks an impressive enough 26th among starters but his batting average on balls in play is sixth at .237. That can be good some good luck (the MLB average is .293), but I don't think that's the case with Gray. ESPN Stats & Information keeps track of "well-hit average," the percentage of at-bats that end with a well-struck ball. At .072, Gray has the best mark among all starting pitchers. Among qualified starters he's tied for the fewest numbers of extra-base hits allowed. Give the A's defense some props as well, but batters just haven't squared Gray up often in 2015.
As for the All-Star Game start, we'll finish with some numbers:
Gray: 7-2, 1.65 ERA, 82 IP, 54 H, 21 BB, 73 SO, 3 HR
Archer: 6-4, 2.01 ERA, 76 IP, 53 H, 20 BB, 97 SO, 5 HR
Keuchel: 7-1, 1.76 ERA, 81.2 IP, 53 H, 21 BB, 60 SO, 3 HR
Hernandez: 8-2, 2.63 ERA, 75.1 IP, 54 H, 20 BB, 75 SO, 8 HR
Archer versus Keuchel is a good debate. Archer versus Keuchel versus Hernandez is a better debate. Archer versus Keuchel versus Hernandez versus Gray is kind of an impossible debate.
Right now, however: I think Sonny Gray has a pretty good case as the best starter in the AL.