The differences between Sonny Gray and Dallas Keuchel present themselves immediately. Gray is right-handed, Keuchel a left-hander. Gray is listed at a compact 5-foot-11, Keuchel a lankier 6-foot-3. Gray is clean-shaven with a baby face; Keuchel has one of baseball’s most distinctive beards.
Scott Kazmir, a left-hander traded from the A’s to the Houston Astros last month, has now been in the same starting rotation as both pitchers and said the similarities run a little deeper.
“Maybe the way they go about their business,” Kazmir said before Thursday’s A’s-Astros game at O.co Coliseum. “They both work hard, have a solid routine from what I see. You’ll see that in any elite pitcher like those two guys.”
Kazmir paused before adding, “But confidence, for sure.”
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And one more link between Gray and Keuchel, who will oppose each other Friday night at the Coliseum: Both are squarely in the conversation – perhaps the main topics – for leading candidates in this year’s American League Cy Young Award race.
Gray is 11-4 with a 2.12 ERA that is second-lowest among A.L. starters (behind Kazmir) and leads the league in opponents’ batting average (.200) and walks-plus-hits per innings pitched (0.98). Keuchel is 13-5, tied for the A.L. lead in wins with a 2.35 ERA (third) and a 0.99 WHIP (second). Last month, Keuchel was the starting pitcher for the A.L. in the All-Star Game; Gray was ineligible after pitching the previous Sunday.
“There’s always premier matchups that you look at a little differently, when you get two guys that have done as well as both those guys this year,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “Those are the type of games where it’s great to watch certainly as a fan but as a manager as well – as long as you’re on the right side of it.”
The A’s have regularly been on the right side of Gray’s starts since his debut late in 2013, but this season the 25-year-old is allowing a career-low 6.5 hits and 2.4 walks per nine innings. He has surrendered just eight homers in 1522/3 innings and has stranded 80.3 percent of runners.
“I think if anything, he’s just gotten smarter, and his command and control and ability to throw any pitch at any time and execute has gotten that much better,” A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said. “His stuff is just so dominant, and he’s such a dominant mentality, that I’m not surprised at all by the way he’s throwing the ball this year.”
Keuchel’s emergence has been more gradual, but only slightly. After going 9-18 over his first two major-league seasons, he had a 2.93 ERA last year and now, at age 27, is allowing a league-low 0.5 homers per nine innings – largely because of a sinker that hitters drive into the ground, resulting in a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio against Keuchel of 4.2-to-1.
“His sinker is one of the better pitches in all of baseball,” Melvin said. “Then he cuts it on top of that; just when you’re looking away he’ll cut in. … He keeps the ball on the ground, and he’s very confident in what he’s doing. We saw him early on in his career, and to get to the point he is right now is very impressive.”
Plenty can change in the Cy Young race in the final two months, but with the A’s and Astros going in opposite directions, Melvin said he doesn’t think Oakland’s record should count against Gray’s candidacy. Kazmir, who could factor into the race as well, is not scheduled to pitch in this series but said he’ll appreciate watching Friday’s matchup.
“I think just as a baseball fan you can enjoy it,” Kazmir said. “Two of the top guys in the league, young guys as well. It’s always exciting when you have a matchup like that.”
Houston LHP Dallas Keuchel (13-5, 2.35 ERA) vs. A’s RHP Sonny Gray (11-4, 2.12 ERA)