Though both spent significant time in Oakland last season, A’s catcher John Jaso had never caught right-hander Sonny Gray in a game until March 6. By the time Gray arrived in Oakland in 2013, after a rapid rise through the A’s system, Jaso had been sidelined for the season by concussion symptoms.
Their first collaboration had a decidedly early-spring vibe, with Gray still getting a feel for his pitches and Jaso learning them, and the result was a four-run first inning. So on Tuesday, against the San Diego Padres, Jaso took a different tack behind the plate.
“One of our things was almost just setting up down the middle and letting him throw his pitch,” Jaso said. “Once he releases the ball, it’s almost like it does its own thing.
“It’s kind of hard to deal with as a catcher. But the (two-seam fastball) is cutting, so I was setting up on the white part of the plate and letting the ball dance around, just do its own thing. And whether it was 95 (miles per hour) or 88, he was doing a real good job of just adding and subtracting miles per hour off his fastball.”
That variant fastball, coupled with a sharp-breaking curveball, helped give Gray – who threw four scoreless innings Tuesday on 45 pitches – a prominent role with the A’s late last year after beginning the season with just one career start above Double A.
The baby-faced 24-year-old started at Triple-A Sacramento, where he went 10-7 with a 3.42 ERA before debuting for the A’s in July and returning for good in August. He finished the season dueling Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander twice in the American League Division Series – the A’s won Game 2 and lost the decisive Game 5 – with a much-maligned playoff mustache (it was gone the morning after Game 5).
It suggested Gray as a big-game pitcher, and he admitted after his start Tuesday that the difference between his game plan in his previous start (work on pitches) and against the Padres (attack hitters) was “really big for me.”
So how is he following up the emotional wave of 2013, now that he’s securely a front-end member of the A’s rotation?
“Honestly, the same way I go into every season,” Gray said. “I love the competition part of the game, so I don’t think there will be (a come-down). I don’t think I’ll take the game any different than I did last year.
“I think that was what was so big last year when I got to the big leagues. ... I didn’t take any of those games different than I did the games in Sacramento. For me, it’s all about the competition with the hitter – doesn’t matter if it’s a Little League hitter or big-league hitter.”
Gray’s poise and tenacity were the main reasons the A’s chose him to start Game 5 last year over veteran Bartolo Colon. With Colon departed, the A’s enter this season without a true ace, instead compiling a rotation that will have just one member – new left-hander Scott Kazmir – older than 26 on Opening Day.
Manager Bob Melvin has yet to name an Opening Day starter, saying only that he has three top candidates, ostensibly Gray, Kazmir and right-hander Jarrod Parker. Parker may be the front-runner as the longest-tenured rotation member, though the A’s have showed they won’t hesitate to put Gray into high-profile situations.
Gray demurred this week when asked what an Opening Day start would mean to him. If any of the A’s starters seem poised to adopt the “ace” label this season, Gray and Parker appear to be the front-runners.
“That’s obviously what you want,” Gray said. “Whoever it comes from, as a competitor that’s what you want. You want to go out and be the best, whether it’s on your team or in baseball in general. Whether it comes to that or not, you always strive for that.”
After being called up last season, Gray held opposing hitters to a .212 average throwing mostly his fastball and curve. He also has a changeup that he threw on just 7.2 percent of his pitches, according to the website FanGraphs. He has used the changeup more this spring, but he said he’ll do so in the regular season only “if it’s needed.”
“I don’t pitch off percentages,” Gray said. “I pitch off each individual game, and hitters’ reaction to each pitch is really different every game.”
Melvin said Gray is building confidence in the changeup and that “it’s always nice to have a third pitch.” That might seem especially true for Gray, on whom opposing teams now have 64 big-league innings plus two playoff starts to study ahead of his second year in the majors.
Then again, Gray pointed out, “I probably have more of a report on them as well.”