Sonny Gray, New York Yankees

Yankees Sonny Gray: Learning Late To Cope With Failure

The Yankees starting rotation is producing quality outings. Waiting to join the party is Sonny Gray, the pitcher whose career has always been hosting the party. Until now, that is. Looking like a deer caught in the headlights in his last start, Gray is fighting to regain the confidence that once came so easy.

I guess it’s possible Sonny Gray, who was born well after former Yankees great Yogi Berra was enshrined in the Hall of Fame, never heard of the enlightened “Yogism” which states, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical”.

And maybe that’s because Sonny Gray has never met failure head-on. From his BMOC (big man on campus) days in high school in Smyrna, Tennessee and on to his college days at Vanderbilt, it all came natural for Sonny Gray.

Signing with the Oakland A’s as a first-round draftee in 2011, Gray was wearing an A’s uniform and pitching in the big leagues at the age of 23, a mere two seasons later, catapulting through the A’s system.

Since then, Sonny Gray owns a three-to-one strikeout to walk ratio in his six big league seasons, and in 2015, he finished third in the AL Cy Young voting. The following year, Gray was struck by one calamity after another, from food poisoning to something called a strained trapezius muscle that limited him to just 117 innings.

Injuries are taken in stride by most professional ballplayers, and Sonny Gray was no exception, bouncing back to make 27 starts in 2017, a season that included a trade to the New York Yankees. However, five starts in 2018 have produced an alarming five wild pitches, only one win, and an egregious 16 walks against only nineteen strikeouts.

For the first time, Sonny Gray is confronting failure. A captivating baseball story, it’s outcome hinges on his ability to remember that he once was, Sonny Gray.

In Oakland, this would barely cause a blip on the media radar, and Gray would continue to go out there every five days with no one noticing, eventually finding his way to finish out the season and providing the A’s with the one thing they need from him – innings.

But in New York, Sonny Gray is failing, and the spotlight unwittingly falls on him, as it will when he takes the mound Monday night to face the World Champion Houston Astros.

The curious thing is pitchers, unlike hitters, seldom fall into slumps. Pitchers are all about mechanics that enable a repetitive delivery and what they call their “feel” on the baseball. Occasionally, as when Jordan Montgomery lost the feel of his changeup late last season, there are other pitches to go to. Whereas a hitter cannot manufacture a new swing overnight.

The Yankees, mainly through pitching coach Larry Rothschild, have endlessly tried to convince Sonny Gray to “trust his stuff,” a phrase that always seems to pop up when a pitcher is struggling. In other words, if it (stuff) brought you here, it’ll keep you here. And then the corollary, “just relax and be yourself, no more, no less.”

A robot can relax quite easily. Just hit the off button. But humans have this thing called our head which can interrupt the process, and this could very well be all that is going on with Sonny Gray. No one, assuming his mechanics are okay, can revitalize Sonny Gray. Only Gray can do that.

Sonny Gray is not Matt Harvey, who continues to add to his pitching woes by constantly shooting himself in the foot. Gray carries no baggage, and unlike Harvey, the Yankees are thrusting their full support behind Gray. Aaron Boone, for instance, suggests Gray may be “nibbling a bit too much” with his pitches, and goes on to amplify to the New York Daily News:

“I think a lot of it has to do with his talent in that he’s capable of doing a lot of things,” the manager said. “He gets great movement on his pitches, he’s got really good stuff, so I sometimes feel it’s a case of he feels like he can always make the perfect pitch. “I think if he just pounds the zone with that and trusts it a little more, the success is right there to follow.”John Harper, New York Daily News

Players and fans alike agree that New York is a tough town to play in. There’s no place to hide, even when your next start is 2,000 miles from Yankee Stadium. But on the other end of the spectrum, nowhere are the rewards for success greater than in New York (yes, I said that).

Yankees fans will recall Sonny Gray gushing when he was traded last July with an opportunity to be joining a winner and a franchise steeped in tradition seeking its 28th Title. Was he lying, merely mouthing the words he was expected to say? Not likely.

But still, the mental side of Sonny Gray appears to be far more significant than the physical side. It’s not likely he’s forgotten how to weave that devastating thing scouts and hitters call a “slider-curve,” up and down and in and around the strike zone, which no one has proven they can hit.

Yogi was right. More than anything, baseball is a head game. And for the first time in his 28 years, Sonny Gray is in the middle of grasping a concept that has been foreign to him – failure. The kid looked frightened on the mound and in his post-game press conference in his last start. (Here’s the video)

All signs point to Sonny Gray figuring it out. There’s no time like the present in baseball, though, and an excellent place to start is against the formidable lineup of the Astros, Monday night. Is he pounding the zone with a “Here it is, hit it” attitude, or is he nibbling around the edges and gone after three innings and 70 pitches, albeit with only two runs surrendered and the Yankees still in the game?

The Yankees are built to score a ton of runs, and it’s no surprise they lead the majors in home runs and runs scored. Meaning, they can erase a poor start on a moment’s notice.

But that ignores the real story because this is a baseball narrative about a pitcher who is trying to find his way to become the pitcher the Yankees traded for, having given up not one but three top-rated minor league talents.

As I’ve said before, this is only about Sonny Gray and the ultimate state of control, in both mind and body. Like the Yankees, I’m betting he can do it in the Big City.

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