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Fire & Ice: No Sunshine for Sonny Gray

Fire – Mitch Haniger

Perhaps no hitter over the first few weeks has flown under the radar as much as Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger. Through 23 games, the 23-year-old is hitting .305/.372/.659 with 8 home runs and 24 RBI. Haniger was productive in an injury-shortened 2017 season as well, hitting .282 with 16 homers and 5 steals over 96 games. That power was good for a .209 ISO, but this year he’s sitting at .354, which is good enough for fifth in MLB at the moment. He’s been primarily batting cleanup or sixth, which will continue to provide him with plenty of RBI opportunities. So are we looking at a third-year breakout?

Launch angle is all the rage these days, and deservedly so. You can’t hit the ball over the fence when you’re beating it into the ground, and that’s a point Haniger seems to have taken to heart heading into 2018. He has increased his FB% by 11% (to 48%), and he’s hitting the ball harder than ever to double down on the power potential. His 41% hard contact is a marked improvement over his 35% mark from a year ago, and he isn’t just pulling the ball for more power — in fact, his pull% is down 7% to 38%.

His launch angle and exit velocity are combining for 10.6 barrels per plate appearance per Statcast, good for 26th in MLB. Haniger’s launch angle has helped him improve against right-handed pitching, specifically. Last year it took him 313 trips to the dish to hit 12 bombs, despite a 38% hard contact rate. It has taken him just 65 plate appearances to hit six bombs in ’18 with the same hard contact, thanks to the improved launch angle.

Not everything is perfect, though, as Haniger does appear to be giving up some contact ability to hit for more power. His contact rate is down 4% to 76% thus far, while his swinging strike rate is up about 2%. The good news? That’s not that bad. If he can continue to sting that ball like he has been without being entirely pull-happy, he should be able to maintain a decent BABIP and hit around .270. There’s upside beyond that if he continues to homer so often, but keep in mind that many of the fly balls that don’t leave the yard are easy outs. Still, this hot start is largely legit, and Haniger should be universally owned moving forward.

Ice – Sonny Gray

2018 has been a lot more gray than sunny for Sonny Gray. Many elderly Yankees fans have been hollering at the television while he’s on the mound, barking “You listen here, Sonny! You start pitching better or I’ll be having a whack at you with my cane!” They have no idea his name is Sonny, but they got lucky on this one since anyone younger than them is a Sonny. Through five starts (21 innings) he has a brutal 7.71 ERA and a 19:16 K:BB ratio. Even his ERA estimators are angry at him, all sitting above 5.04. I won’t lie, I own Gray on a team myself, and I’ve wanted to whack him with a cane as well. Fortunately for him I don’t live anywhere near New York, nor do I have a cane.

The first thing that jumps out at you looking at Gray’s numbers is the 6.86 BB/9, which has led to a *gulp* 2.14 WHIP. Yowza. He’s never even posted a walk rate half that bad in his career, so what’s going on? A cursory dive into his pitch mix shows us something’s up — he’s tossing 11% more curveballs so far in ’18. It’s a good pitch for him, probably his best, so it makes sense in a vacuum that he would throw it more and get better results. The thing is, it’s a pitch that he tries to get swings with below the zone and not so much a pitch he gets called strikes with. Batters are finding it easier than ever this year to spit on those curves and sit fastball since that appears to be where his command is failing him. Have a look at his heatmaps on fastball location from 2017 compared to 2018.

Gray is leaving those fastballs up up up and they are going bye bye bye like Justin Timberlake in the year 2000. In 2017, his fastballs yielded 55% ground balls with a .237 batting average against. This year he’s netting just 49% grounders with a .330 BAA on his fastballs. Looking at his location, it’s easy to see why. His first pitch strike rate is way down from a 59.6% career mark to just 50%, and it’s tough to get batters to swing at that curveball when you’re already behind in the count.

It’s also worth noting that he just hasn’t meshed with Gary Sanchez. Sanchez is a poor defensive catcher to begin with, and with Gray throwing so many curveballs in the dirt (by design) that need to be blocked, Austin Romine is the better choice behind the plate when Gray takes the mound. Manager Aaron Boone has even acknowledged that Gray works better with Romine behind the dish, and if that’s something Boone is able to consistently provide Gray, his outlook improves.

This seems to be something of the mechanical variety that Gray should be able to get sorted out. There is no velocity dip to sound the injury alarm on, and by all accounts Gray is healthy. Pitching in the AL East is tough business, but if he can regain his fastball command, he should be able to right the ship and net a bunch of wins pitching for a strong Yankees team while posting a sub-4 ERA. Gray doesn’t have quite the strikeout upside to be a fantasy star, but a rebound to last year’s numbers is feasible, making him a fantasy #3/4.

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