OAKLAND — Each start seems to bring more questions than answers for Sonny Gray.
When one aspect of his game is dialed in, another one is off-kilter.
In Thursday night’s 7-3 loss to the Rays, A’s catcher Stephen Vogt said Gray had one of his best breaking balls all season. However, his fastball command was nowhere to be found. The result was a season-high tying seven runs and nine hits over five innings, and an ERA that has swelled to 5.49 over 18 starts.
“His velocity kind of dipped and was a little sporadic,” Vogt said. “You’ve got to give them some credit too. Every pitch that he missed with, they hit. But obviously, it was not his best stuff today.”
That dip in velocity, to a degree at least, was by design according to manager Bob Melvin. The plan was for Gray to dial back on his fastball a little bit, in the hopes of gaining some better command and movement, saving the big heat for the opportune times to blow it by hitters. Melvin said by no means was it a major change in strategy, but whatever the case, the intended results did not follow.
“You’re always tinkering some,” Melvin said. “I mean, he’s not a 95, 96 (mph) guy anyway.
"But when you’re struggling you’re always trying to make adjustments. I’m not saying he was trying to go out there and do things completely different. Maybe just gain a little bit more movement and a little bit more command in backing off on the max effort with the fastball.”
At this point in Gray’s season, it’s difficult to find fault when shaking things up in any aspect. Gray has posted a 7.92 ERA in six starts against the American League East. His ERA is 7.95 from the fourth inning on in games, and he’s shown an alarming inability to handle the opponents’ bottom of the order. Gray entered Thursday with the highest batting averages in the majors against the opponents’ No. 8 and 9 hitters.
That’s contributed to too many rallies that never should have happened, too many potential threats that don’t get extinguished. Tim Beckham, hitting eighth for the Rays on Thursday, is no harmless hitter. The former No. 1 overall pick enjoyed a five-hit game Wednesday, then homered off Gray in the second. Beckham and Luke Maile, the ninth hitter, ignited a four-run fifth against Gray with back-to-back singles to start the inning.
Gray pointed to some unfortunate luck with the next hitter, Logan Forsythe, whose base hit struck the second base bag and allowed him to leg out a double. But even that ball was ripped up the middle and seemed destined to be an RBI single at the very least.
As has been the case after so many starts, Gray was honest in his self-analysis, and it’s clear that he has yet to find the solutions he’s looking for.
“It seems like when you need to make a pitch and you need to get a double play, or you need to get an out or something, it’s just not the case,” Gray said.
Judging from their 42-54 record, the A’s have several team-wide issues that need fixing. But the mystery of Gray’s downhill slide this season is their most perplexing individual question. The troubles can even be traced back to the end of 2015. Since Sept. 1 of last season, Gray is 6-10 with a 5.77 ERA.
“It’s obviously been tough mentally from the time … it started,” Gray said. “Before tonight, there were quite a few positives in a row. And then you take a giant step back. It is tough mentally sometimes. You just need to continue to battle through it.”