The A’s starting rotation was the focus of much national attention in July, mostly for the big names who joined it: Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija, via two high-profile trades. But only one of the current starting five has received Pitcher of the Month honors this season – and he was in Oakland already.
“I don’t think that was a secret, that we had a lot of good pitchers here in the first place,” right-hander Sonny Gray said Monday. “Obviously, we got a lot better adding some new guys, but I think we’ve been a really good pitching organization for a long time.”
For some, the A’s newly loaded rotation has spurred comparisons to the early 2000s version, led by the “Big Three” of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. That also had been the last time one of the A’s was named the American League Pitcher of the Month twice in a season (Zito in 2001) – until Monday, when Gray received the honor for July.
Gray, who also won the award in April, beat out a field including new teammate Lester and left-hander David Price, who was involved in another major trade at the deadline last Thursday, going from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Detroit Tigers. In five July starts, Gray went 5-0 with a 1.03 ERA and 31 strikeouts in 35 innings. His ERA was the lowest by an A’s starter in any month since Cory Lidle recorded a 0.20 mark in August 2002.
While Lester’s acquisition gives the A’s an established No. 1 starter and Samardzija’s an imposing power pitcher, the development of Gray continues on its sharp trajectory a little more than a year since he made his major-league debut. Still in his first full season, Gray entered Monday tied for third in the A.L. in wins (12), tied for sixth in ERA (2.59) and sixth in opponents’ batting average (.220).
Gray said it was “nice to get back on track” in July after “struggling the month before a little bit.” He had a 5.40 ERA in five June starts and failed to complete six innings twice, the only times that has happened for Gray all season.
That last part was telling. Gray said in July he made a conscious effort to get back to “attacking hitters,” which resulted in more early contact and lower pitch counts. The two months before that, Gray said he was “kind of trying new things out,” so he stopped “trying to trick people” and instead tried “to get back to what got you here.”
For Gray, that normally means going after hitters with his fastball and offsetting it with a big-breaking curveball, and he did say his feel for the curveball was “really good again” in July. Another factor, though, was Gray mixing in his changeup more often and, according to pitching coach Curt Young, with more traditional movement than he had been using.
“We got back to his good fundamental changeup,” Young said. “He had a little cut going on his changeup, but now he’s back to a true sinking, fading changeup that has been real good to him to righties and lefties.”
According to Brooks Baseball, which tracks pitch usage, Gray has thrown his changeup about twice as often this season (16.6 percent of his pitches) as in 2013 (8.2 percent). Despite seeing it more often, opponents are hitting .208 and slugging .292 against the pitch, compared to marks of .235 and .412 in Gray’s limited use of it last season.
Manager Bob Melvin said Gray over the course of this season has tweaked his grip on the changeup “actually several times, so it looks here recently like he’s found something that he’s comfortable with.” Gray said his comfort level with the pitch has been a big factor in its becoming more effective and that using it “I think really got some hitters off-balance.”
Gray pointed to the fact that in his last start against the Royals, he threw the changeup in three different three-ball counts – an indication of his confidence in the pitch.
“Last year, I definitely wouldn’t have done that,” he said. “So I’m just really feeling comfortable throwing strikes – with the exception of a few games – with all my pitches.”
Not a factor in his performance last month were the additions of Lester and Samardzija, said Gray, who shrugged off the idea that the A’s acquiring two marquee starters might have stoked his own competitive nature.
As for whether he could learn from watching a veteran like Lester, Gray said: “Maybe, we’ll see.”
He said he still draws heavily on his time last season with Bartolo Colon, whom he “watched a lot.”
“I don’t know if it was because it was my first experience in the major leagues or what, but he honestly helped me create a routine,” Gray said. “And I feel good with where I’m at right now.
“Obviously I want to continue to learn and pick other guys’ brains. But as far as routine and getting stuff ready for the game, I feel pretty comfortable.”