Sonny Gray Is the Ace the Cardinals Needed Him To Be

Sonny Gray continues to be a dominant arm, just as he has for the past 12 years. The Cardinals have a rock-solid staff ace on their hands.

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - MAY 09: Sonny Gray #54 of the St. Louis Cardinals delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at American Family Field on May 09, 2024 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Entering the 2023-2024 offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals needed to upgrade their pitching staff more than most other teams. Whether it be via trade, free agency or retirement, the club lost Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson and Jake Woodford – an entire rotation’s worth of arms.

Clearly, there were a ton of shoes to fill. Early on in the offseason, the front office was busy: signing Kyle Gibson, Lance Lynn and Sonny Gray all in the month of November. The Cardinals identified their targets and got right to deal-making.

With a ton of innings needing to be replaced, this trio, while no longer the young bucks they once were, should’ve been more than enough to fill out the rotation.

Through the Cardinals’ first 54 games, none of them have an ERA below 4.08 (Lynn) and their veteran presences have hit all the right notes. Gray has done the most to separate himself from the group, though. Last year’s runner-up in the AL Cy Young voting is off to a scorching start in the current campaign.

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Sonny Gray Is the Ace the Cardinals Needed

For over a decade now, Gray has flown under the radar and been a rock-solid pitcher. Over the course of a big league career that’s up to 12 years deep, he’s had an ERA over 4.00 just three times. He’s a three-time All-Star, has finished top-10 in Cy Young voting three times and has been fairly durable as well.

Through 13 starts this year, Gray has a 2.95 ERA with an even more impressive 2.58 FIP. He’s also striking out batters at an alarmingly high rate for him, as he currently has 11.2 K/9, topped only by the 11.6 he had in an 11-start season in 2020.

The right-hander has struck out eight or more batters in nearly half of his starts and has three earned runs or less in 10 of them. He’s remained a top-shelf starter and is proving to be worth every penny of the $75 million the Cardinals committed to him this past winter.

Arsenal Adjustments

Recently, Gray has started to lean more heavily into his sweeper, which is a devastating pitch for the opposition. In 2021, he threw the pitch 15% of the time and hitters managed just a .153 average off of it. In 2022, he dialed it back to 10% and had a .216 average against it.

But last year, he went from four-seam/sinker/curveball to four-seam/sweeper/curveball/sinker/cutter. He began to expand his arsenal and throw his pitches with more equal distribution, hitting 13% or higher on each of those five pitches.

Gray has kept the same arsenal of pitches that he throws in the current campaign, but hasn’t thrown any of them under 16%. He’s still switching things up constantly and has leveled his game up because of it.

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How Sweep It Is

His sweeper in particular has turned into an absolute weapon. Thrown 18.8% of the time, Gray has only allowed hitters to register a .138 batting average, third-lowest amongst pitchers with a minimum of 50 PA this year.

Gray’s sweeper is also third in SLG (.195), second in wOBA (.185) and Whiff% (44.9) and leads the league in K% (57.6). Typically, sweepers are more effective against same-handed hitters, and pitchers who use the pitch as one of their main offerings don’t throw it as often against opposite-handed hitters. Gray is not a typical pitcher.

As recently as last season, Gray threw the sweeper to lefties 15% of the time and 25% of the time to righties. An adjustment in how often he throws it to righties has seen his numbers improve across the board, especially when it comes to strikeouts.

Entering Saturday’s action, he’s at 17.8% against righties and 19.7% against lefties; a much closer gap than it was one year ago. It can’t be a coincidence that a second-half arsenal adjustment last year is why he went from a 4.85 ERA in July to 2.04 in August and 2.00 in September.

What makes him so dangerous is the fact that he doesn’t need to lean only on the sweeper. He’s got an extremely deep arsenal and can save the sweeper almost as a “secret weapon” for when he needs an out.

The Leaderboards

Amongst starting pitchers (min. 50 IP), Gray is middle of the pack in multiple categories. However, he finds himself fourth in baseball in K% and FIP, fifth in K/9, sixth in SIERA and 10th in batting average against.

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He’s going deep into games, he’s striking out more batters than he ever has before and somehow his ERA is higher than his FIP, suggesting that he’s maybe even a little bit “unlucky“. It is especially interesting to see that he’s outperforming himself in every way from last year’s performance that earned him a second place finish in the Cy Young voting.

At the age of 34, it seems that Gray is only getting better, and it’s coming at the perfect time for the Cardinals.

St. Louis is 37-37, 6.5 games out of first place in the NL Central, but they find themselves in a tie for a spot in the NL Wild Card race. If the season ended today, this is – just barely – a playoff team. With Gray atop the rotation, the Cardinals pitching staff is fifth in baseball in ERA but second in FIP in the month of June. Now it’s just a matter of getting that offense going.