For much of the season, Sonny Gray was the best starting pitcher in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. For the last month, the A's No. 3 prospect has been the second-best starter in the club's big league rotation. Without him, Oakland wouldn't be holding on to a narrow lead over the Rangers in the American League West.
And while Jonathan Mayo believes that the Cardinals' Michael Wacha will make a bigger impact down the stretch, the simple truth is that Gray has more explosive stuff and has been more dominant. He's averaging 8.8 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter, compared to Wacha's 5.8, and has a better opponent OPS (.557 to Wacha's .605) as well. That bodes better for the rest of September and the playoffs in October.
Scouts considered Gray one of the most big league-ready talents available in the Draft two years ago, and the only reason he lasted 18 picks was that the 2011 talent pool was unusually deep. After leading Vanderbilt to its first College World Series appearance -- a feat that former Commodores aces David Price and Mike Minor were unable to accomplish -- and signing for $1.54 million, Gray made one tuneup appearance in the Rookie-level Arizona League before zooming straight to Double-A.
In an attempt to improve his command, the A's asked Gray to take a more direct path to the plate during his first full pro season. The changes had an opposite effect, as he was less precise and less dominant with his pitches, so he reverted to his previous delivery later in 2012 and hasn't looked back.
Though scouts worry in general about short pitchers having the durability to make it as starters, the 5-foot-11 Gray has a strong 200-pound build and a pair of out pitches that should help him stick in the rotation for the long term. His fastball sits at 93 mph and reaches as high as 97, featuring some run and sink. His hard curveball is his signature pitch, and his ability to manipulate its velocity and break make it even tougher.
Gray made his Major League debut with a couple of scoreless relief appearances in mid-July before replacing Tommy Milone in Oakland's rotation. Gray has recorded five quality starts in six tries, posting a 2.77 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 39 innings. He has been more impressive than his 2-3 record, which results from a lack of run support (3.3 runs per start) and defensive lapses (unearned runs led to two of his three defeats).
Gray doesn't have the potential to impact the pennant race. He's already doing it. The only A's starter with better stuff or a better long-term future is Jarrod Parker, and Gray deserves to slot right in behind him in Oakland's postseason rotation.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.