Why the Milwaukee Brewers are bullish on Sonny Gray

Baseball insiders say the Brewers are in on Sonny Gray, but why are they so bullish after such a down year?

In the public eye, Sonny Gray is no longer a sexy name.

For those who doubt, the comments swirling around rumors of the Yankees and Brewers discussing a potential trade for the six-year veteran should clarify what little remains. But having little fanfare or excitement, let alone enthusiasm, shouldn’t overshadow one of the most important concepts in baseball, especially for a small market team: value.

Sure, on the surface, Gray pitched more like a starter in his mid-30s trying to reinvent himself for a new club than a player only two years removed from an All-Star appearance and a third place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. But surface numbers like wins and losses are only half, if not less, of the story.

Before he was traded to New York at the deadline in 2017, there seemed to be a lot more enthusiasm for the then-27-year-old right-hander in Milwaukee, even if that meant moving a few key pieces to do so. And even those that remained skeptical seemed to have at least some semblance of understanding as to why the interest existed, even if the cost was higher than many were willing to pay.

A few months before his age-29 season, however, there seems to be significant public backlash over the club’s continued interest in potentially securing Gray from the Yankees, who have shown absolutely no interest in keeping the hurler around, certainly much of which likely stems from his borderline brutal numbers while in the Bronx last year (4.90 ERA, 1.496 WHIP), even if his 2017 numbers appeared more favorable.

Whatever the case is, it’s hard to deny that Gray absolutely suffered within the confines of Yankee Stadium. Throughout his year-and-a-half tenure, he amassed a 6.35 ERA and 1.674 WHIP while going 15-16. And despite his splits, it was enough for him to lose nearly all support in New York, let alone interest throughout the rest of the league in both front offices — at least seemingly — and stadium seats alike.

To be fair, those kinds of numbers are nothing to scoff at. Over the course of a game, they’re bad luck or an off day. Over the course of a season, let alone a season and a half, it looks much more like a pattern, and one that tends to be less easily forgotten than a simple slump or necessity for adjustment. But they’re also not truly indicative of a pitcher’s ability: they don’t compensate for league averages, coaches, ballpark factors or, in the case of New York, widespread and vocalized public distrust. Even outside of the numbers, Gray seemed a better fit in Milwaukee when his former Vanderbilt pitching coach Derek Johnson was still employed there — lest we forget that reclamation projects are almost exclusively based on the guidance and expertise directly involved with them.

With all that said, anyone with even cursory baseball statistical knowledge and/or a penchant for numbers can see exactly why the move still makes sense.

For anyone concerned about the cost, Gray won’t come cheap: inside sources have indicated that at least 10 teams could be in on him. Given his $6.5 million salary last year, he wouldn’t break the bank in arbitration. The bidding war will be about the Yankees’ needs over anything else and the Brewers still have a few positions of strength to trade from without compromising the their robust farm system.

Beyond cost, he’s also pitched much better than his surface numbers indicate. In 2018, even with the damage done to him at home, he still managed to assemble a 4.10 xFIP, indicating he should have had nearly a complete run less than his 4.90 ERA. His splits tell an interesting story as well: while his 6.98 ERA and 1.904 WHIP (as well as a sunken 6.8 K/9) is about as ugly as a starting pitcher that’s still allowed on the mound can get, he was highly successful on the road, compiling a 3.17 ERA and a 1.155 WHIP while striking batters out at a clip of 9.9 K/9.

Of course, you can’t lean on home/road splits for everything, especially considering he spent most of his career in one of MLB’s top-5 pitchers’ parks, but the rest of his numbers seem to comply as well. His .326 BABIP was the highest of his career, meaning that even though it’s only a few steps above league average, more balls were coincidentally dropping than ever before. His hard-hit percentage also uncharacteristically spiked, which isn’t really a surprise given BABIP and regularly facing the AL East.

At the end of the day, he will still be rightly considered a bit of a reclamation project. Considering his age and talent, he’s worthy of a David Stearns gamble, especially when there is so much uncertainty in the rotation — while Jhoulys Chacin has a chance to sustain his success, Chase Anderson regressed, as did the injury-beleaguered Zach Davies, Jimmy Nelson is recovering from major surgery, Brent Suter is out in 2019 due to Tommy John and both Freddy Peralta and Brandon Woodruff are still getting their major league legs under them. Plus, Gray still has seven, yes seven, different offerings for new pitching coach Chris Hook to tinker with.

Bear in mind, the Brewers don’t have the financial flexibility of most other teams hitting the pitching market this offseason and David Stearns has made numerous public statements that Hot Stove 2019 won’t likely look anything close to a year ago when the team inked Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelichthey simply can’t afford it. And with the chance to add a potential impact arm as a small market team with limited resources, a willingness to gamble responsibly is a sign of effort and due diligence, not reckless spending.

It’s OK not to be excited about the prospect of the Brewers adding Gray, but writing him off completely would be as irresponsible as writing off Chacin and Wade Miley. Anyone who watched Milwaukee come within a win of the World Series last year already knows how that played out.

Jonathan Powell is a co-founder and lead writer for Bronx to Bushville.

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