At just over a quarter of the way through the season, it’s clear that Sonny Gray is struggling and that Austin Romine is his catcher. Is this simply catering to the whims of a mercurial pitcher, or is there something to the puzzle that is Sonny Gray that Romine has a better chance at solving?
While pitchers are known for all manner of rituals with varying degrees of apparent rationality, something as extreme as determining the lineup is not the sort of thing a manager, even a seemingly easy-go-lucky green one like Aaron Boone, is going along with barring a specific indication that there’s reason for it, and in spite of his disappointing outing against the Angels, it is true, at least on its face, that Gray has pitched better to Romine.
His two worst outings of the season came when paired with Gary Sanchez, and up until his most recent start Gray had seemed to be on a positive trajectory since being paired more or less permanently with Romine. Last season, Gray pitched several of his best games with Sanchez behind the plate, but his worst outings were all with Sanchez and his outings with Romine were largely good to very good.
The gap between Gray’s performance with his two battery mates was far less noticeable last season than it has been this season, but if looking purely at results, Gray has quite simply pitched better to Romine.
Why Gray has been more successful with Romine is less simple to answer. Looking at the pitch selection for Gray’s first two starts (shown on the top), where he was paired with Romine, and his next two starts (shown on the bottom), the only ones where he worked with Sanchez, the most noticeable difference is that Gray threw slightly more curveballs in those first two starts.
(It is important to note that the distinction between Gray’s slider and curveball is almost impossible to pinpoint with pitchf/x or statcast data.)
Overall that’s a reasonably similar pitch selection, considering there’s going to be a certain degree of variation start to start, but looking at where in the zone those pitches were thrown shows a difference in approach.
In the two early starts with Romine, which were generally speaking fine, there’s a fairly clear approach — sliders and curveballs in the zone and down, fastballs and sinkers in the zone and up. The pitch selection with Sanchez is a bit more scattershot and has notably fewer curveballs and sliders below the zone.
Before the shrieks of “defensive liability” ring out across the trig-state area, it’s important to note that much of this could be a result of Gray simply being behind in the count more often in his less successful starts and not being in a position to throw a pitch out of the zone to get a hitter to chase.
(Romine top, Sanchez bottom)
Looking at pitch selection purely when ahead in the count, it’s apparent that a certain amount of the variation has to do with opportunity, as there were simply more pitcher’s counts in those first two starts with Romine catching.
That said, it is still notable that there were fewer pitches below the zone, especially curveballs and sliders, in the two starts with Sanchez.
It’s in Gray’s April 25th start, his first again with Romine catching after two back to back borderline disasters, we see an interesting trend that perhaps explains part of Gray’s results with Romine behind the plate.
In that start Gray relied heavily on his fastball and was almost exclusively in and below the zone. It’s almost as if Romine and Gray reverted to the basics, focusing on fastball command to lock back in after struggling.
For a team that was notorious early in the season for not throwing fastballs, perhaps the key to getting back on track was in the ability to veer away from that strategy for a pitcher who was clearly struggling with it.
Part of the reason that the “no fastball” approach may have failed Gray is also part of why he more than other pitchers works best with a specific catcher.
Gray has never been a get it and go style pitcher, and he has been called cerebral on more than one occasion. Cerebral, yes, but not analytical like the Greinkes and Scherzers and even Bauers of the league. He is perhaps more artist than mad scientist, which is only fitting for a pitcher who lives and dies by painting the corners.
Gray operates intuitively, pitching by feel and making minute adjustments in finger pressure rather than necessarily with grips the way other pitchers would. He prefers to visualize how he wants to pitch, an approach described by Sean Doolittle as “thinking of how he wanted the ball to move, then just making it do it.”
Romine’s ability to adapt, more than the specifics of pitch selection or strategy, more than his strength at blocking a curveball in the dirt, likely holds the key to his on-field relationship with Gray, and why Boone and the Yankees are content to continue to let Romine take the start every fifth day.
Whether it’s adjusting to leaning again on Gray’s fastball, guiding Gray through a bounce back start so that one bad day doesn’t become a full on slide, catching an entirely new version of his slider on almost no notice, or simply getting Gray to settle into a rhythm on the mound when he could get caught up tinkering, Romine has been able to at least come close to reading Gray’s mind.
That mind Romine has been attempting to read is not weak, and Gray is not fragile, or easily rattled as it would be far too easy to label him. This is the man who, when he was still just a boy, played a football game the day his father died because quite simply it’s what he felt he had to do; the one who, as a rookie, stared down Justin Verlander in a postseason start and didn’t blink.
Gray is simply different, and not easy to catch though seemingly easy to talk to if his teammates past and present are to be believed. A little accommodation for that difference, with the promise of the genius Gray has flashed at times throughout his career, is warranted. Gray’s a puzzle still trying to be solved, and while that solution is mostly in his hands, maybe Romine has the clue he needs.
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