This article is not meant to assign blame. If anything, credit goes to Justin Verlander, who Verlandered really hard for eight innings. Sonny Gray, for his part, tossed a gritty start without his best stuff, and got killed on the one mistake he made to the world’s best gimpy hitter. (Rearrange those last four words all you like and they’re still true.) Unfortunately for Gray and the A’s, Verlander left no margin for error. All the margin for error was left in Game 4, it turns out. Before we lament another early exit, let’s understand what happened on the mound.
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here’s a scatter plot of Gray’s pitches, marked with numbers to show the order in which each pitch occurred in the at-bat in which it was thrown. Using my old friend MS Paint, I boxed all the first-pitch balls I could find with red.
That adds up to 14 1-0 counts. Gray faced 24 Detroit batters in total, so his first-strike percentage was about 42 percent, compared to 59.8 on the year. Most of them were easy takes, especially after Gray established that he lacked his typical command. Tigers hitters got count leverage without much thought on their part. How much of an advantage is that leverage? Well, as a team, Detroit hit .283/.346/.434 this year, but after 1-0 counts, that increases to .292/.399/.453. After 0-1 counts, it drops to .260/.299/.393. Respectively, those three levels of production are equivalent to Starling Marte, Allen Craig and Andrelton Simmons. Gray needed to turn the Detroit lineup into a bunch of glove-first shortstops, and certainly he meant to, but he couldn’t execute that plan. Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy offered his hypothesis during the game.
With the pitch data already in our evidence bag, McCarthy’s statement should not be questioned. The man is, after all, an expert on this sort of thing. All I will do is try to back him up with visual evidence. Below are two screenshots, the first from Miguel Cabrera’s homer last night and the second from a Prince Fielder groundout in Game 2.
Both pitches thrown were fastballs, and both fastballs were out over the plate. In the first picture, Gray has an exaggerated lean toward first base, almost like he is in the middle of diving to stop a groundball. In the second, Gray’s back is closer to being parallel with the ground, and he isn’t falling off the mound as much. His left foot is planted more firmly than in the first picture, and his back foot isn’t swinging forward as low and violently. In the first picture, Gray’s back hasn’t rotated as much, evidenced by the increased visibility of the 4 in 54 on his jersey. Finally, for what it’s worth, Gray’s head is much closer to the “o” in “oaklandathletics.com” in the first screenshot. The camera angle may be slightly different, but that wouldn’t make much sense, and even so, the first three things I mentioned, about Gray’s body and not its position in the frame, hold true.
The difference are minute, but you don’t need me to tell you they matter greatly. Cliche alert: the physical mechanics of pitching are as intricate as the workings of a wristwatch. Sonny Gray was just a little bit off last night. His pitch missed a little bit up. Miguel Cabrera’s home run went just a little bit over the fence. The A’s, this year, last year, and in 2006, fell just a little bit short against the Tigers.