GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Because he had right elbow surgery to remove bone chips in September after his final 2019 start, Reds starting pitcher Sonny Gray now only hears a pop in the catcher’s glove when throwing.
No longer does Gray feel a pop in his arm.
“It’s been pretty normal,” Gray said Saturday about his recent bullpen sessions. “I probably threw more this offseason than I have. It’ll be achy every now and again. But I threw my long bullpen [session] and came in and it feels great and it feels good today. It’s weird, because it doesn’t pop. I’m so used to throwing and it getting really stiff and having to pop it and spending hours in the training room.”
Elbow stiffness in camp last year limited Gray to three exhibition starts, though he never missed a start during the regular season that followed. The right-hander said he pitched with elbow stiffness for “multiple years,” likely because of the loose chips. It required extra maintenance that took time away from trying to improve his craft.
“The goal is to be able to throw and then continue to work and develop other things and get into a good program to stay strong throughout the season,” Gray said. “That’s going to be big for me, to be able to maintain everything for the duration.”
In 31 starts during his first year with Cincinnati, Gray went 11-8 with a 2.87 ERA, 205 strikeouts and 1.084 WHIP over 175 1/3 innings. Over his final 16 starts, he went 8-3 with a 1.99 ERA. He made the National League All-Star squad and finished seventh in NL Cy Young Award voting.
The Reds acquired Gray from the Yankees in a Jan. 21, 2019, trade and signed him to a three-year, $30.5 million contract extension through '22 with a $12 million club option for '23. The trade came after he underperformed in New York with a 4.51 ERA over 41 games, and it appeared to be the consummate change-of-scenery improvement.
“It became fun again,” Gray said of pitching. “It became something I enjoyed doing. Showing up to the field is something I look forward to doing. That was kind of it.
“I enjoyed showing up to the field [in] New York for a lot of the time, until it came to a point where you just feel like you’re just kind of there. It feels like work. It’s a job, and you’re just clocking in your hours. ... You’re showing up and when it’s time to leave, you leave. You’re putting in your effort and staying with the guys and doing that. As far as getting better and performing as a baseball player, it became, ‘It was what it is.’”
Joining the Reds reunited Gray with pitching coach Derek Johnson, who coached him in college at Vanderbilt. Johnson and another Vanderbilt alumnus, assistant pitching coach Caleb Cotham, helped get Gray back on track.
According to Statcast, Gray’s already effective curveball became more effective, averaging 2,983 rpm, up from 2,852 the previous season. His strikeout percentage went from 21.1 percent in 2018 to 29 percent in ‘19, while the expected batting average (xBA) went from .252 to .212.
“I’m the biggest DJ and Caleb supporter there is, for good reason,” Gray said. “I just think they’re so good at what they do. [They're] good at making you a better player and better pitcher and also making you accountable for your actions. It’s individualized. They’re very good, and I believe in them for everything.”
Gray is part of a strong Reds rotation that also features ace Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Anthony DeSclafani and free-agent acquisition Wade Miley. Many forecast Cincinnati -- which has six straight seasons with a losing record -- as a contender for the NL Central crown. That’s based on the starting five and an improved offense, but Gray would prefer to prove it on the field.
“On paper, we’re pretty good. But it’s kind of up to us,” Gray said. “The front office has done everything we could ask as players thus far, to go out and get pieces and get veteran guys, really good baseball players. They’ve kind of held their own and committed to a direction here. It’s up to us to take that and run with it.”