Souhan: April was a Gray area for Twins

·4 min read

In his last game, at the end of the Twins' 1996 spring training, Kirby Puckett faced Atlanta ace Greg Maddux, smacked a single and yelled "Picasso!"

If he were alive today, Puckett would be Googling "Influential Spanish artists" to find the appropriate praise for Sonny Gray.

If you never saw Maddux pitch in his prime, you missed baseball genius in motion. Maddux compensated for his lack of raw velocity by placing a variety of pitches, all of which moved like frisbees, wherever he wanted them.

In April 2023, Gray pitched like Maddux at his best, and there is no greater compliment that can be paid to a modern-day pitcher who relies on guile and movement.

Sunday at Target Field, Gray pitched six innings, giving up one run, in the Twins' 8-4 victory over the Royals. He is 4-0 with a baseball-best ERA of 0.77, tying Ervin Santana in 2017 for the lowest ERA in April in Twins history. He became the first pitcher ever to go 9-0 in nine consecutive starts against the Royals.

Gray has not given up a home run this season, in part because he throws six pitches — a curve, cutter, sinker, four-seam fastball, slider and changeup, in order of preference. All of his results and some of his pitches this April have been reminiscent of Maddux, which is unintentional. "No, he's not an influence," Gray said. "Great pitcher, though."

Twins pitching coach Pete Maki noted that Maddux relied heavily on his two-seam fastball and a devastating changeup. Gray, he said, "has three different types of spin varieties," and, like Maddux, can throw a two-seam fastball at the hip of a lefthanded hitter and make it belatedly curl into the strike zone.

Gray defies two tenets of traditional baseball thinking. At 5-10, he is a relatively short righthander who lacks dominant velocity — a combination of red flags for old-school scouts — and he doesn't need to set up his breaking pitches by using his fastball early and often. His command of his curve gives him a pitch that can get him ahead in the count, or get an out early in the count, without requiring maximum velocity.

His crooked pitches have prevented crooked numbers on the scoreboard — he has given up only three runs all season, never more than one in a game.

Gray is 4-0, halfway to his victory total last year. "I think the biggest takeaway is the wins," he said. "For me, that's the only thing that truly matters, is that when I start a game, the team wins."

In his first career start against the Royals, in 2014, he gave up a fifth-inning home run to Raul Ibanez. He has not given up a home run to Kansas City in 71 innings since.

"I don't know if anyone in baseball could have had a much better month than what Sonny Gray just gave us," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "I don't know what goes into that 'pitcher of the month' deal that they give away, but that looks like a pitcher of the month performance if I've ever seen one."

Gray didn't give up a run on Sunday until the Twins led 8-0.

Baldelli praised "the unwavering nature of the way his outings have gone. I don't care who you are, over the course of a month to just go out there and most of the time overwhelm the outing, dominate the outing — but when it's not going perfectly, he's found every possible way to get through the outings that haven't been perfect.

"He has not let up. He has bent, because you have to bend at times, but he has not broken at any point this year, in any outing, regardless of how he's throwing the ball, how he's feeling, the strike zone, which pitches are working and which aren't. He has a lot of different ways to get outs and he's used them all over the course of this month, and it's been impressive."

For those of us who hung on Maddux's every pitch, it's also been nostalgic.