There may be no 2011 prospect I've personally changed my mind about more over the past couple of seasons than Sonny Gray.
When I first saw him as a freshman, Gray looked like a potential No. 1 overall pick throwing flames out of the Vanderbilt bullpen. In 2010 Gray was good, even very good, spending most of the season as a starter. He racked up a 24.3% strikeout rate and a 10.3% walk rate in 2010. So far in 2011 Gray has struck out 27.3% of batters faced while walking 9.9%. Those numbers are certainly solid, but aren't quite elite for a potential high first round pick.
As a freshman closer, Gray hit 98 MPH with his fastball and was consistently 95-96 MPH. As a starter, his fastball has been 91-94 MPH with below-average life and average command. Necessitated by pacing himself over a full start, Gray's fastball has gone from an electric, legitimate plus offering to an average-to-above-average one as a starter.
Gray's best pitch is his breaking ball. Straddling the line between curveball and slider - I personally call it a slider if you want to call it a curve, good for you - the pitch comes in 80-84 MPH with outstanding, late 1-to-7 break. Gray's slider scoffs at the laws of physics. The one negative is that almost uses it too much at times. Gray knows how good his slider is, so he throws it a lot. He throws it nearly as often as most pitchers use their fastball. Like most off-speed pitches, it loses a little effectiveness the more hitters see it. Gray has very good command of his slider, being able to throw it for strikes early in the count and bury it out of the zone with two-strikes. It gets a firm 70 grade as one of the best weapons of any pitcher in the 2011 draft class.
Gray also has a changeup, but he doesn't throw it often. It's clearly the third pitch in his arsenal. Currently a well-below-average offering, he lacks some feel for it. He has terrific arm speed, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that he improves his changeup in pro ball, but at this point it's largely potential.
Listed at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds Gray probably is a little bit shy of those marks, especially height. While short right-handers have historically been undervalued, I'm generally not one to dock a pitcher for his height. It does, however, affect Gray somewhat in that his release point is lower than average, which creates less of a down-hill plane on his fastball, making it more hittable.
Gray was a high profile quarterback in high school, winning the Tennessee State Title, and despite his lack of height has a strong, athletic build. There doesn't seem to be much room for added bulk on his frame, but Gray is an excellent athlete.
I tend to like quaterbacks turned pitcher since throwing a football while large, angry men are chasing after you requires a quick release and accuracy. Those attributes tend to transfer to the mound. Gray does have an outstandingly quick arm, but lacks elite command.
He holds the ball in his glove with his arms extended away from his body, for some reason. This adds a little length to his arm action, but not a ton. Gray utilizes his lower half very well. He takes a long, direct stride towards to the plate while keeping his front hip closed very well. In contrast to a Trevor Bauer, for example, Gray does a better job of leading his foot closer to horizontal, rather than having his toes pointed closer to home, which keeps his front hip closed for longer. The longer a spring stays coiled, the more explosive the ultimate release.
Gray is somewhat inconsistent with his footplant. Sometimes he will overstride and occasionally has problems finishing over his front hip. These inconsistencies alter his release point a small amount which, I think, plays a big part in his mediocre control.
His arm action is relatively short (outside of his unusual starting point) and simple. However he begins the pick-up phase of his delivery a bit late. This creates a relatively significant timing problem in his delivery. The ball is near shoulder height, occasionally just above, at footplant. Gray does use his torso well, taking some of the pressure off his arm by, extending well over his front knee.
Overall Gray does several things very well, but his timing at the single most important point in the delivery is worrisome. He uses his whole body to generate power, which mitigates some of the potential problems, but he's a max-effort guy who is at least an average injury risk at best and likely higher than average.
What really stands out watching Sonny Gray is his personality. He is visibly intense on the mound, the type of pitcher who punctuates outs with yells and fist pumps. He plays the game with a football player's mentality. Gray is likely to be a home-town favorite and a heel on the road. Either way, the game is more fun with guys like Sonny Gray.
The determining factor in Gray's draft position and future value is whether a team sees him as a starter or reliever.
If you're on Team Starter you're buying into the fact that Gray has excellent arm strength, competitiveness, and athleticism, a terrific two-pitch combo, and you believe in the potential of his changeup as a quality third offering. If everything breaks right, he's a good No. 2 starter.
Team Bullpen sees Gray as strictly a two-pitch guy without exceptional command. You think the fastball plays back up over short bursts, and feel his motion and mentality fit best in the pen. If everything breaks right, he's a shutdown closer.
I've spent time on each team, but I now find myself in the bullpen camp. He could certainly start in the short-term, but long-term I think he'd be better suited as a high-leverage reliever.
Whatever you think his role is, he's a likely big leaguer and a potential valuable one. That can't be said about many draft prospects. While Gray is certainly a first round talent questions about his long-term role keep him out of this year's top 10 for me, but he could go that high on draft day if a team has fallen in love.