Why are Cardinals fans so hesitant to call Sonny Gray an ace?

Sonny Gray has pitched like an ace for awhile now, so why are some Cardinals fans not ready to acknowledge that?
Milwaukee Brewers v St. Louis Cardinals
Milwaukee Brewers v St. Louis Cardinals / Dilip Vishwanat/GettyImages

The 2023 season did a number emotionally on many St. Louis Cardinals fans. Maybe some find it easier to just set their expectations low instead of getting hurt again by this team, but I find it odd how many within Cardinals Nation still resist the idea that Sonny Gray is an ace (or number one starter, or front-line starter, however you define it).

Maybe part of the problem is how people define an "ace". There is zero question as to whether or not Sonny Gray is a number one starter or front-line starter, and what I mean by that is someone who can pitch Game 1 of a playoff series and go toe-to-toe with the other club's best, but I also think it's pretty easy to see why he should be viewed as one of the very best in all of baseball as well.

Let me give you some different stats from different time frames...

Sonny Gray in 2024...

If you want to define players by "what have you done for me lately", Sonny Gray has been one of the best starters in baseball this season.

  • Gray's 1.04 ERA in his first three starts ranks tenth among pitchers who have started a game this year, and fifth among players who've made at least three starts.
  • Despite making only three starts thus far, Gray ranks fourth in pitcher fWAR already, with the pitchers ranked ahead of them all throwing at least 10-16 more innings than him thus far.
  • Are you a fan of starters with swing-and-miss? Gray's 35.9% strikeout percentage ranks fifth among all starting pitchers.
  • In each of Gray's first three starts, he has been on a limited pitch count, meaning the club has been protecting him in recovery back from his hamstring injury, not allowing him to go all out yet. So, a "compromised" Gray, or at least one on a pitch limit, is outclassing almost every starter in baseball.
  • In his latest start, Gray faced the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, and put on an incredible performance, striking out 12 batters in 6.1 innings of work. Gray was burned by a two-RBI double that knocked him out of the game, but he was keeping St. Louis in a game while their offense was going through an ice-cold stretch.

Sure, it's all a small sample size, but I know some people value the here-and-now stats above all.

Now let's look at his 2023 stats, as it continues to tell a story of dominance from Gray.

Sonny Gray in 2023...

While Gray is off to a masterful start to this season, he's fresh off another incredible pitching performance in 2023, which was perhaps the best of his entire career.

Gray finished second in American League Cy Young voting behind Yankees' ace Gerrit Cole and did so due to the following accomplishments...

  • His 2.79 ERA (third in all of baseball among qualified starting pitchers)
  • 2.83 FIP (first in all of baseball)
  • 5.3 fWAR (tied for third in all of baseball)
  • 184 innings pitched (24th in all of baseball)
  • Making the American League All-Star Team and finishing 18th in American League Most Valuable Player Voting
  • Five shutout innings in the Twins' series-clinching victory over the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card Series.

Well, if you go by his 2023 performance and numbers in 2024 so far, there's no doubt Gray is one of the best pitchers in today's game. If you're someone who wants a bit more of a track record, then let's go all the way back to 2019, Gray's first season in Cincinnati and after making some changes to his game after his stint in New York.

Sonny Gray since 2019...

Some people have pointed to Sonny Gray's one year with the New York Yankees as evidence that he's not a big game starter. Well, in the five full seasons since that rough stint and the start of the 2024 season, Gray has, once again, been one of the best starters in baseball.

  • Since 2019, Gray has posted a 3.17 ERA, 16th in all of baseball during that stretch among qualified starters. If you raise the bar to starters who've thrown at least 600 innings since 2019, his ERA ranks 7th, only behind Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Shane Bieber, Corbin Burnes, and Max Fried...all seem like aces to me!
  • Speaking of innings, Gray has thrown the 23rd most innings in baseball since 2019, out of the 143 starters who even qualified for the list.
  • If you're a FIP kind of person, Gray also ranks 16th in baseball over that stretch, and 9th among starters who've thrown at least 600 innings.
  • Since 2019, Gray has made two All-Star teams and finished top 10 in Cy Young voting twice. Three of those five full seasons came with the Reds, meaning he pitched his home games in Great American Ballpark, one of the most offensively friendly ballparks in baseball (and he still was amazing).

Okay, if Gray's dominant 2024 performance thus far, his Cy Young-level season in 2023, and his elite numbers from the last five full seasons (and the start of 2024) don't make the argument for you, let's go ahead and add in career stats as well.

Sonny Gray in his career...

Since debuting in 2013 for the Oakland Athletics, you can make a strong argument that Sonny Gray has been the most underrated pitcher in all of baseball. Don't believe me? Let the numbers do the talking...

  • On the surface, Sonny Gray's career 3.46 ERA is not flashy and only ranks 36th in all starting pitching since 2013, but if you shrink that list down to pitchers who have thrown at least 1000 innings in that time, Gray's ERA ranks 15th in baseball, and he's all the way up at 8th among starters who've thrown 1500 innings.
  • The seven starters who rank above Gray are Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Chris Sale, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, and Corey Kluber. All seven of those starters have won at least one Cy Young Award in that stretch, and most of them will be considered for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
  • Gray ranks 12th in pitching fWAR since debuting with 31.1, which would actually be more than some Baseball Hall of Famers (not arguing Gray should be considered one, but he'll likely end up in the "Hall of Very Good", guys who weren't quite Hall of Famers but weren't far off either).
  • Gray, in his career, is a three-time All-Star and has finished top-3 in Cy Young voting twice while finishing 7th on another occasion.

Sonny Gray is an ace, but why are Cardinals fans so hesitant to call him that?

Not all Cardinals fans are reluctant to bestow that title onto Gray, but for those who are, I have a number of explanations as to why I think that may be the case...

First and foremost, many of us have a hard time shaking our "first impressions" of a player. Going into the offseason, Gray was seen as clearly a tier below guys like Aaron Nola, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Blake Snell, and because of his age, many fans wrote him off as too "old" to continue his run of play. Some fans have even just flat-out underrated his performance in recent years, not recognizing that he's been one of the best pitchers in baseball.

This past offseason, I've had fans reply to my tweets or message me directly saying things about Sonny Gray like...

"He's a number three starter at best."

"He's not an ace."

"He is NOT a number one."

"He will be Matz 2.0"

These are just the tip of the iceberg. Don't believe me? Look at some of the replies to my tweet about Gray all the way back on September 25th, 2023, before the offseason even started. I promise you there are hundreds more from throughout the offseason.

Aside from a section of fans who have just pigeonholed Gray into being a far less talented player than he truly is, I do believe there are some fans who just were unfamiliar with how good Gray is. Honestly, until mid-way through the 2023 season, I even underrated him a ton. I always thought Gray was a good pitcher, but not an ace. And then I went and looked at what he's done in his career, and my mind was changed.

It's also fair to say his 2023 performance helped cement that stance. We live in an era of baseball where starting pitchers can age really well, so being an ace in your mid-30s is entirely possible, and Gray is proving that right now.

Lastly, I do think there's a section of Cardinals fans who are probably hesitant to think too highly of Gray. It's been a while since the Cardinals have had an "ace". They've also sold fans on aging stars that have underperformed far too often. Gray wasn't a guy who got hundreds of millions of dollars in the open market, so how could he really be that good?

Well, he is. And it's time to recognize that.

The St. Louis Cardinals have an ace, and his name is Sonny Gray. The Cardinals could surely use another front-line starter to pair with him in a postseason series, but that does not mean Gray is not worthy of taking the ball in Game 1 of a postseason series.

No matter who is on the mound for the other team, I know Gray has the talent and competitive drive to go toe-to-toe with any starter in baseball. And at the end of the day, that's what an ace is.

I'm looking forward to seeing Gray continue to perform for the rest of the season and give St. Louis something that haven't had in quite some time...a true ace.