May 25, 2024

The evolution of Sonny Gray’s many sliders: ‘More velo, less movement’

When Sonny Gray puts his hand down flat, his index finger doesn’t make it to the table. His 9,282 breaking balls — more than anybody not named Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander or Yu Darvish since 2014 — have changed his body over time. He’s also made some changes to those pitches since he debuted. Over time, he’s transferred his elite ability to spin the ball into today’s deadly arsenal of bendy pitches.

“My curveball has always been my curveball,” the right-hander said earlier this month. “It’s down and left, a two-seam grip curveball.”

That pitch has been there for him, four or five hundred times a year, every year. The rest of his breaking pitches, though, have been in flux ever since he debuted in Oakland. Getting the names right is just as hard as nailing down what he was trying to do with each pitch.

“I lost my slider until 2017,” he says, and then a breath later starts talking about the hard slider that worked for him in Oakland. He prefers to call his sweeper a slider, too, but the movement profile fits the former label. What else is there to do when someone clearly has had a couple of different sliders at his disposal? The word “slider” would start to lose meaning.

Let’s separate these into a (hard) slider (even if it’s sometimes called a cutter) and a sweeper (even if it’s sometimes called a slider) for clarity’s sake. A combination of clarity and precision is the whole point of adding “sweeper” to baseball’s glossary, after all, and using these names will help make a chart like this make more sense.

So, back to the sweeper. It was probably born from his curveball, or at least that’s what he said of his “slider” after his struggles in New York. It was during that time when he compared his sweeper to one he saw on the Yankees — one he ended up picking up when he left. Maybe the best thing he learned while in pinstripes.

“I don’t have that type of slider, like (Masahiro) Tanaka’s slider,” Gray said in 2019. “His slider, the catcher will catch it, and the batter will swing-and-miss. If I get a swing-and-miss, the catcher is blocking it in the dirt. When I try to throw sliders for a strike, I get around it and it’s just a s—– spinning pitch.”

That envy led to Gray learning Tanaka’s grip and applying it in Cincinnati.

Sonny Gray's original sweeper grip, cribbed off of Masahiro Tanaka.

The sweeper grip Sonny Gray got from Masahiro Tanaka. (Eno Sarris / The Athletic)

That first year in a Reds uniform, Gray threw 587 of these sweepers and got a 40 percent whiff rate and a .212 slugging allowed on the pitch as a reward. Bingo!

Well, maybe. Over the next three years, he chased horizontal movement on the pitch (which increased) at the expense of velocity (which decreased) and generally got worse and worse results on the pitch every year. There were … extenuating circumstances in the middle of that stretch. In 2021, after pitchers’ rampant use of sticky stuff as a performance enhancer had been unveiled, MLB stepped up its enforcement. It caused pitchers to have to reevaluate how they were designing their pitches.

“The ball was moving great. That was during sticky stuff, being honest, when the ball would stick,” Gray said of his sweeper in 2019. “When you started having to use the seams more, it would move a lot to the left but it was slower.”

You can follow along with what Gray is saying here in the numbers, as his horizontal movement increased while his velocity decreased.

So Gray had to find a pitch that worked without sticky stuff. The key was his thumb.

“With my thumb there, it would pop,” Gray said of the movement of the ball out of his hand. “How do I make the pop not happen? It was moving too much and too slow. It would pop up and slowly move, and batters could see it.”

The key was moving the thumb up and out of the way.

Sonny Gray's new sweeper grip from above and below.

Sonny Gray shows off his new sweeper grip from two angles. (Eno Sarris / The Athletic)

Now the ball could come out of his hand in a more crisp way, which led him to his next “Aha!” moment with the pitch.

“It started with a conversation, I would say in between 2022 and leading into 2023, a conversation with the people at Drivelive,” Gray said. “We talked for a while and I started asking questions. How could I be better, what can I do better? We had a lot of conversations about that and what my arsenal could look like to maximize what I already do well. The one thing was to stop chasing movement on your slider, sweeper, whatever you want to call it, and add in velo. More velo, less movement.”

As you can see in the graph above, Gray’s been able to toggle that switch. This year, he’s throwing it harder than ever. He’s not getting his most movement on the pitch, but 60 percent of the time a batter swings at this thing, he misses. And when he does make contact, he’s slugging .160 on the pitch. It’s well on its way to being the best sweeper in baseball for the second year in a row.

“I looked into some of the best, bigger moving sliders, what performs the best, the stuff movement, damage and expected damage, all of the metrics that you want to look at,” Gray said. “A harder breaking ball is better. Then I really bought into straight chasing velo and not chasing the movement.”

Not surprisingly, his coaches agree with the change.

“It’s a good pitch already, but in general, in baseball across the board, if you can keep the same actions and throw a breaking pitch harder, it’s almost always a better pitch,” Cardinals pitching coach Dusty Blake said. “It’s got a unique shape and it has a ton of horizontal movement, but the depth of it is much more than the normal sweeper. ”

Only one pitcher in baseball has thrown more pitches with as much depth, sweep and velocity as Gray has this year.

Along the way, he also figured out his harder slider, or cutter.

“In 2015, when I had that hard slider I was doing well with, I would offset my four-seam and I was just throwing a hard slider,” Gray said of the pitch. “I’m always on the side on the ball, I would try to spin it as hard as I could. Now I’m throwing it like a fastball and letting the grip do the work.”

Now the pitch has less movement than before, almost nine inches less drop. Again, though, it’s coming down the pipe three or four ticks harder and forcing the batters to make their decisions quicker. Also, as a harder pitch, it looks more like a fastball, giving him more types of fastballs with which he can attack the plate.

“Having three different fastballs is a game changer,” Gray agreed. “With my four-seam and my sweeper, it was more than 15 inches of separation, which is easier for them to differentiate. The cutter, what it’s done for me, it sticks a pitch in the middle.”

It’s hard to pull apart all the different things he’s changed, but in the past two years, Gray has gotten his best swing rates on his sweeper. Having a cutter can help coax the batter into those swings when he thinks he’s getting a cutter. Or takes on the cutter when he thinks he’s getting the sweeper.

Often, pitchers use cutters against opposite-handed hitters up and in, but the right-handed Gray will throw it to righties in a place where they just might think it’s a sweeper to get those takes in the zone.

The evolution of his arsenal has brought Gray to this moment. He’s got three fastballs, so you can’t necessarily sit on one hard shape and keyhole him that way. With the cutter and the sweeper, he’s got two pitches that are similar enough that it’s tough on a batter to just spit on anything breaking in that direction. Gray has three breaking balls, so you can’t just sit on one soft shape and try to approach him that way.

This is what a feel for spin can do if a pitcher hones it and refines it over time. Speaking of which, there’s a Gray on the way who’s got even more time. If he’s got his father’s proclivity for breaking balls, baseball better watch out.

“My son’s 9,” Gray laughed. “He’s already ripping curves.”

(Top photo: Rick Ulreich / Icon Sportswire via Associated Press)