Checking in on Matt Harvey and Sonny Gray

Fantasy gamers who drafted Matt Harvey and Sonny Gray haven’t gotten the return on their investment they’ve hoped for. Harvey’s strung together three straight strong starts, but Gray turned in a rough start Wednesday night after a pair of solid starts following his disabled list stint. I loved Harvey coming into the year, but I was down on Gray. For the rest of the year, though, I’m buying into both pitching well.

The full buy-low window has closed on Harvey, and if you listened to Eno nearly a month ago and viewed his early-season struggles as no big deal, congratulations. He’s totally righted the ship. Prior to his start on Memorial Day, Mike Puma of New York Post discussed Harvey’s mound work between starts to fix a mechanical flaw. The turn around immediately followed this mound work, and in his last three starts spanning 20 innings, Harvey has allowed just two earned runs on eight hits and three walks with 17 strikeouts. The opponents were soft with the Marlins being the best offense he faced during that time frame. Miami ranks just 15th in wRC+ (95) vs RHPs this season. The other two opponents — the the Brewers and White Sox — rank 22nd and 26th in wRC+ vs RHPs this year, respectively.

He dominated in those starts, and dominating was something Harvey hadn’t done this year against anyone — soft opponent or not. What’s changed? The cheddar is back and he’s missing more bats. Prior to his Memorial Day start, Harvey’s fourseamer averaged 94.97 mph, his sinker averaged 95.54 mph and his slider averaged 88.77 mph, per Brooks Baseball. In his last three starts, he’s averaging 96.28 mph with his fourseamer, 95.77 mph with his sinker and 90.92 mph with his slider. He’s swapped about 6% of his fouseamers for sinkers, but otherwise, his pitch mix hasn’t changed much. One major change is that his whiff rates are up across the board, and one pitch has taken a monstrous leap in missing bats.

Harvey’s fourseam fastball and slider have made negligible gains in whiff rate, and his curve’s whiff rate is up about 2%, but his changeup has turned into a bat-missing weapon since he found the missing ticks. Prior to May 30th, the changeup tallied an 11.93% whiff rate. Since May 30th (including that start), the changeup’s whiff rate has surged to 20.69%. The Dark Knight is back. His full-season totals make it worth investigating whether or not he can be acquired at the cost of an SP2 as opposed to the SP1 he actually is.

Entering the season, I stated that I didn’t believe Gray would be a top-50 starter. There were a number of concerns I had relating to his poor second half in 2015. Gray’s velocity dipped and he cut way back on his slider usage in the second half of last year, and his results suffered. Prior to hitting the disabled list this season, his velo remained down on his fastball and sinker with both sitting between 93-94 mph. In three starts since his activation from the disabled list, Gray’s fourseam fastball is averaging 95.14 mph and his sinker is averaging 94.85 mph. The Vandy product’s current velocity is in line with when he was shoving early last year.

In his first two starts this month, he held the Astros and Reds to a combined three earned runs on 10 hits and two walks with nine strikeouts in 12.2 innings. He was cruising Wednesday night throwing up zeroes through the fist five innings, and then he fell apart in the fifth inning coughing up five earned runs. The hiccup could be just what gamers need to buy Gray at a discount, and that’s a move I’d advise making.

In addition to reclaiming missing ticks, Gray’s changed his pitch mix substantially. Through his first nine starts, he leaned on his fourseamer (42.19%) more than his sinker (17.55%). In his last three starts, his fourseamer is down to a 27.89% usage rate while his sinker is his primary fastball at a 38.25% usage rate. He’s also nearly eliminated his changeup from the pitch mix throwing it 13.94% of the time before hitting the shelf and 1.20% since his return. Reducing his changeup usage has been accompanied by his curve and slider gaining usage from 15.38% and 8.29%, respectively, to 19.92% and 11.55%. The changeup had been an ineffective pitch with just a 9.48% whiff rate and a .321 batting average against it in his first nine starts per Brooks Baseball. Scrapping it in favor of the breaking balls should be viewed as a plus. The slider and curve are both better at avoiding lumber, and in his last three starts, his curve features a 20.0% whiff rate and his slider’s whiff rate is an even more impressive 27.59%.

For the year, his SwStr% is 8.0%, and it’s identical to that in his last three starts. What gives? While his breaking ball whiff rates are up, his fastballs aren’t missing bats. The good news is that his sinker serves another purpose. In his last three starts, it’s featuring a 68.0% groundball rate. Gray has the goods to get a strikeout when he needs one, but his sinker — and his fourseamer with a 50.0% groundball rate in his last three starts, for that matter — gives him what he needs to seek favorable contact and keep his pitch count down, therefore allowing him to work deeper into games. I’m still not as high on Gray as his biggest supporters were entering the season, but I believe he’s a solid top-50 starter with low-end SP2 upside going forward. He can likely be had a fraction of that cost.

We hoped you liked reading Checking in on Matt Harvey and Sonny Gray by Josh Shepardson!

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You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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Gray was cruising last start