Here is a link to my Monday column about Sonny Gray. The full text runs below:
OAKLAND — Sonny Gray, who may or may not be the A’s staff ace, beat the Angels on Sunday and that made his record 6-1 — superb — and that made his earned run average 2.45 — ditto on superb.
Because he won, the A’s swept the Angels and increased their lead over the Anaheims to 4 games. Gray was sometimes overpowering and, when he got into trouble, he mostly got out of it. He passes the statistics test and he passes the eye test. Just looking at him you know this is an elite pitcher.
But is he an ace?
It is a serious question and the answer helps define Gray and helps define the A’s. And it brings on two more questions — please bear with me. What is an ace? Do the A’s have an ace?
First, let’s do definitions. An ace is a team’s opening-day pitcher. An ace pitches the big game in the postseason. An ace ends a losing streak, never lets things get out of hand, never allows chaos to intrude upon a respectable season. An ace out-pitches the opponent’s ace. On Sunday, Gray out-pitched Angels’ ace Jared Weaver.
By those definitions, Gray is an ace, is the A’s staff ace.
There are more parts to the definition. And maybe these are just my preferences. An ace is unquestionably the best pitcher in a team’s rotation. An ace is overpowering. He may overpower with heat — Gray was throwing 95 mph in the seventh inning. Or an ace can overpower with a curveball or any other pitch.
Clayton Kershaw is God’s gift to aces and he has a killer curve Vin Scully calls it Public Enemy Number One.
This dominating pitch makes an ace scary and awe inspiring. An ace has a presence, almost a spiritual aura, certainly a don’t-mess-with-me attitude. To help understand ace, think Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Justin Verlander — not so much now — Tim Lincecum, once upon a time.
An ace is different from a staff’s best pitcher. The best pitcher may not be an ace.
Right now, Tim Hudson is the Giants’ best pitcher. Is he the staff ace? That is to be determined as time goes by.
Right now, the A’s Scott Kazmir has six wins, the same as Gray. He may be Oakland’s best pitcher. In my gut I don’t consider him an ace — I could be wrong — and I’d give the ball to Gray instead of Kazmir in a make-or-break game, although in September when things feel desperate, this might change.
Before the game, I asked Bob Melvin if he has an ace. Melvin was sitting in the dugout for his pregame media session. He sat straight as he always does. His posture is symbolic. Straight shooter. Straight talker. Straight-ahead guy.
“For me an ace is a guy that’s been around for a while,” Melvin said, “and has moved himself into that position — kind of like a perennial opening-day starter. Sonny has not been around long enough, and I don’t want to put that type of pressure on him where we’re saying, ‘OK, you’re our ace.’
“He likes to be the guy the team relies on. But one of the strengths of our team is the depth we have. We feel good with any particular guy on the mound. Certainly with losing two starters in spring training (Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin), it takes away from that a little bit.
“Yet, we do have the depth to plug in guys like Tommy Milone. And Drew Pomeranz has done a nice job for us. We really feel good about each and every one of our guys, and I don’t want to put that moniker on him (Gray) because — not that he doesn’t like pressure — but for me an ace has to be around for a few years and have a few opening-day starts to be considered that guy.”
To summarize: Good use of the word moniker by Melvin. You don’t hear many “monikers” these days. Just as important, Melvin was saying an ace has staying power. This is Gray’s first full big-league season, and the guy is only 24, for heaven’s sake. And Melvin does not want to put pressure on Gray to be THE MAN.
After the game, I asked Melvin to describe Gray. Melvin happily obliged. He was a catcher and he has spent his adult life thinking about pitchers.
“He never gives up that big inning,” Melvin said. “He throws 95 and he’s got a “plus” breaking ball. But he gets so many groundballs that he’s kind of unique. His stuff is power stuff, but he finds a way to keep the pitch count down by the amount of ground balls he gets.
“He gets real good late movement on his fastball. Even when you’re in a fastball count and you’re thinking you’re going to get a fastball to hit, it’s got a very late, sudden movement and it breaks both ways. For the catchers it can be difficult to catch.”
So, Gray is unique, has power stuff, but also confuses hitters like a finesse pitcher. This kid could have a future.
Gray met the press after the game, stood by his locker answering in short, precise, declarative sentences. He was patient, businesslike, careful bordering on wary. He never said too much, tried to stay out of trouble. It’s how he pitches.
He wouldn’t touch the ace question. Said he doesn’t wonder whether he’s an ace, doesn’t think it’s necessary to designate an ace on the A’s. I told Gray that Melvin said he thinks like an ace. Does Gray understand what Melvin meant?
“Because I want the ball,” he said, his face dead serious. “Because I look forward to big situations. Because I’m hard to get out of a game.”
Ace qualities. Call him a pre-ace.
We’ll drop the ace question for now and say, sure the A’s have good pitchers up and down the rotation with no particular ace.
And we’ll add this caution. By the time of the playoffs, Melvin needs to name an ace, needs to believe he has one. Not just a No.1 pitcher. An ace who does ace things.