In his first start of the summer, Sonny Gray struck out nine over six scoreless innings as part of a combined no-hitter against Korea.
In his final start of the summer in front of a boisterous crowd in Tokyo, Gray limited a dangerous Japan team to two runs (one earned) over seven strong innings to lead USA Baseball’s collegiate national team to the gold-medal game of the V FISU World University Championship.
But Gray’s signature outing of the summer came a week before the Japan game, in Team USA’s FISU opener—a 15-0 blowout win against a severely overmatched Sri Lanka team. In a five-inning complete game, Gray needed just 69 pitches to strike out 14. He did not issue a walk and allowed just one hit.
“Forty pitches into his outing,” USA pitching coach Dave Serrano said, “I turned to the dugout and said, ‘Sonny Gray is taking a professional approach to this.’ If he missed his spot, it may have been one pitch. It didn’t matter who he was pitching against, how good or bad they were, he was pitching at a major league level. Then he started pitching in the stretch on his own just to get work pitching out of the stretch for his next outing.
“That told me everything I needed to know about Sonny Gray. It was quality work at the highest level. He was pitching like it was the gold-medal game, against a team that had no shot at all to beat him.”
That mature, professional approach is a big part of what makes Gray special, but it’s just a part. Gray is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound pit bull on the mound, but he has a gregarious, fun-loving, slightly mischievous personality off the field, and he emerged as a true clubhouse leader in his second tour with Team USA.
And, of course, Gray’s electric right arm makes him special. With a lively 93-96 mph two-seam fastball and a power curveball in the 82-85 range, Gray has some of the best pure stuff in college baseball, and he used it to go 3-0, 0.38 with an eye-popping 37-4 strikeout-walk ratio in 24 innings this summer.
The total package—the leadership, the absurd numbers and the strong performance in Team USA’s biggest win of the summer against Japan—makes Gray Baseball America’s 2010 Summer Player of the Year. A rising junior righthander at Vanderbilt, Gray is the third Commodore to win the award in the last five years. He’s in good company; his two Vandy predecessors—former Team USA star lefthanders David Price and Mike Minor—have already tasted big league success.
Everybody Loves Sonny
It’s hard not to love Sonny Gray. Just ask his coaches.
“I love Sonny Gray,” Serrano said. “I think he was one of the best guys to be around this summer—you talk about leadership, competitiveness, an ambassador for USA baseball, as a teammate.”
“I love Sonny. I think he’s as good a pitcher as there is out there,” USA head coach Bill Kinneberg added. “Sonny was kind of our team leader, and he pitched some really good games for us . . . He’s some kind of kid.”
Anyone who follows Gray on Twitter (@sonnygray2) has a sense of his outgoing personality. Gray started tweeting last summer during his first of three trips to Japan (Vandy also went there last fall), as a way to communicate with his family and friends. The updates were well received, so he stayed active on Twitter after the summer. It’s a good platform for someone who likes making friends.
“I’m not afraid to go up and talk to anyone, and I don’t get embarrassed much,” Gray said. “I go up and joke with you and talk with you. It kind of opens other people up too—if somebody’s shy, they will open up if you just throw yourself out there and talk to them.”
That was the approach Gray took in the Team USA clubhouse, where stars from around college baseball quickly meshed into a tight-knit group, thanks in part to Gray’s efforts.
On the field, Gray wanted to continue to polish his command and repertoire. Gray started throwing an 86-88 mph slider this summer, and he plans to keep that pitch in his arsenal. Heading into the summer, Gray was aware of Serrano’s reputation as a master teacher of the changeup, so he focused on improving that pitch, and he leaned on it more against Japan when his curveball was not especially sharp. The feel for pitching he demonstrated in that game, in a frenzied atmosphere against Japanese sensation Yuki Saito (“The Handkerchief Prince”), was a clear sign of his maturation.
“The crowd was crazy,” Gray said. “They had Saito pitching—he is king over there. There were people there to see him, screaming in the grandstands. I struggled my first two innings, threw like 40 pitches. My curveball wasn’t working, so after the second I started relying on fastballs and changeups, and it helped me get through the game. It helped me get a lot of ground balls.
“I think maturing as a pitcher, especially from senior year to now, you understand the different situations in the game. That is one thing about getting older that I start to understand: If you want to pitch deep into the game, you have to pitch to contact, you can’t strike everyone out.”
For a kid from rural Smyrna, Tenn., who grew up blowing away overmatched hitters with mid-90s heat, that was not an easy lesson to learn. But Gray has proven willing to work and capable of making adjustments.
With those skills, it won’t be long before he’ll be following in the footsteps of Price and Minor again—to the big leagues.