From time to time, Curt Casali finds himself in the best possible position to assess Sonny Gray’s abilities as a pitcher.
“He’s a pretty special guy,” Casali said. “If you’ve ever had the opportunity to catch him, which I have, it’s something else.”
Forget all the subtleties and nuances of throwing a ball 60 feet, 6 inches, though. Even the most elementary of baseball fans in the seats on opening day at Hawkins Field on Feb. 19 could see a difference when Gray took the mound against Niagara.
Namely, he’s right-handed.
The sophomore out of Smyrna became the first Vanderbilt right-hander ever to start the season-opener under coach Tim Corbin, now in his eighth season.
“We just don’t have the left-hander in our program who’s there yet, but we probably will,” Corbin said. “Sonny was very deserving of the ball on the first day. He earned it, and the kids have a lot of confidence in him.”
While his delivery is different, the expectations are exactly the same for Gray, who figures to be the Commodores’ Friday starter all season, as they were for the illustrious string of lefties who preceded him.
There was Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Mullins, David Price and Mike Minor. All four moved on to careers in professional baseball, three of them as first-round draft picks.
Price, Sowers and Minor are first, third and fourth, respectively, in all-time strikeouts at Vanderbilt and all three are among the school’s top nine in career wins.
“You understand there’s been a lot of successful pitchers here, but there’s been more successful pitchers than just those who’ve thrown on Friday,” Gray said. “I think it just shows how good a program Coach Corbin has established.
“I think we can continue to grow that program.”
Gray certainly measured up to the standard of his predecessors in his first try. He threw eight shutout innings, struck out eight, walked one and allowed three hits in the season-opening victory over Niagara.
The performance earned him the season’s first Southeastern Conference Pitcher of the Week award. Price earned that honor six times in his career, Sowers four times, Mullins twice and Minor once.
Corbin was not looking for another left-hander to get things started in 2010. In fact, he looked no farther than Gray when he analyzed his current pitching staff. Last season, Gray earned one Freshman All-America nod after he went 5-1 with five saves and a 4.30 ERA. He then was an integral part of the USA Junior National Team during the summer.
Similarly, Sowers, Price and Minor all earned at least one Freshman All-America nod and assumed the role of Friday night starter as a sophomore.
“I feel a lot more comfortable this year than last year,” Gray said. “Last year I was still trying to figure out a lot of things. … I threw on Friday once or twice last year, and it’s something you look forward to. You just want to get your team started off on the right foot.”
The Commodores won the first game in four of their 10 conference series’ in 2009. Three times they went on and won the series, which included a three-game set at Georgia when Corbin shuffled his rotation and gave Gray his first career start — on a Friday night. They also won their opener at the SEC tournament, behind a dominant effort from Minor, and ultimately reached the championship round.
“I feel like it’s a great honor to be throwing on Friday,” Gray said. “Obviously, I look at it as ‘one game at a time.’ So whatever I can do on Saturday to help the team win, whatever I can do on Sunday, whatever I can do on Friday, on Tuesday – any game.
“I think the main thing about pitching on Friday is just to get your team started off on the right foot for the weekend series.”
Corbin looked at more than just statistics, however, when he chose Gray for this role. The coach also looked at the competitiveness that allowed him to quarterback Smyrna to back-to-back Class 5A state football championships in 2006 and 2007. He weighed the manner in which Gray interacts with and inspires those around him.
All of those things combined set him apart in a way that made it seem likely he could fit in with the likes of Price, Sowers, Minor and Mullins.
“There have been a tremendous amount of good pitchers here at Vanderbilt,” Corbin said. “He being the first right-handed pitcher who’s going to throw in our eight-year time here on opening day … is unusual. But I think he’s got his own standard. At least he’s got his own belief system.
“He’s a very, very competitive kid. There have been many times on Friday where he’s been successful, whether it be football or baseball. This is just another opportunity for him.”
While Sowers, Mullins, Price and Minor all threw with the same hand, their approaches were unique. Price was a pure power pitcher who left hitters little chance. Sowers dazzled with command and location. Minor relied on a devastating change-up, and Mullins kept hitters off balance with a dizzying array of off-speed stuff.
Gray, with a fastball in the mid-90s and hard breaking stuff, is more like Price than any of the others. Last season he struck out 72 in 58.2 innings.
“He has a lot of movement on his fastball,” Casali said. “Sometimes it’s going to move maybe six inches. Sometimes it will drop. Sometimes it will cut. You never know what you’re going to get. That’s the thing that keeps hitters off balance.
“He’s going to turn some heads this year.”
He’s already turned things around in one regard.