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Column: A’s have handled Sonny Gray poorly in 2016

31 July 2016: Oakland Athletics Starting pitcher Sonny Gray (54) [9102] delivers a pitch to the plate during the first inning of Major League Baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland, OH. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

Oakland Athletics’ ace Sonny Gray was placed on the 15-day disabled list for the second time this season on Saturday. He was removed from his start in the fifth inning, after first feeling the strain in his forearm while striking out the Cubs’ Dexter Fowler in the fourth. The severity of the injury is not immediately known.

However, after the disastrous season that the 26-year-old Gray has had, it’s tough not to believe that perhaps this injury could be the cause.

Gray started off the season going 3-1 in his first four starts while pitching into the seventh inning and posting an ERA of 2.73. He looked, for the most part, like the All-Star and top-three Cy Young finisher he’d been just a year prior.

In his fifth start of the 2016 season, he was knocked out of the game against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers in the second inning. It marked the shortest outing of his professional career.

After going 1-3 in his next four starts — only pitching past the fourth inning in two of those starts — Gray was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained trapezius (shoulder) muscle. He returned to the team on June 5. In his next 11 starts, Gray won just twice, giving him a 5-11 record and a bloated 5.74 ERA when he was taken out of his Saturday start.

Gray had shown signs of his 2015-self during those 11 starts, but not of the brilliance that had almost won him a Cy Young award. Now being on the disabled list again — this time with a more serious forearm strain — one can’t help but wonder if perhaps the A’s had been more proactive in treating Gray and getting him on the disabled list after his horrendous start in Detroit in April, we would now know more about what caused the complete derailment of his season.

Gray’s season has been a nightmare, especially for the confident pitcher who never shows signs of being shaken. He started two games of the 2013 ALDS just a couple months after being called-up to the big leagues. It’s almost impossible to believe that Gray’s confidence could be shaken or that somehow his woes on the mound were mental.

The A’s have not released yet released an update on Gray’s condition nor have they said that he has had an MRI. Yet, that is what must be done.

Forearm strains are often a precursor to a torn ulnar collateral ligament, the ailment that necessitates Tommy John surgery. There is also evidence that an elbow issue can be the cause of other ailments prior to showing itself. Therefore, Gray’s first DL stint, even though it was for a shoulder injury, could have simply been a symptom of a bigger problem surrounding the right-hander.

According to Baseball Prospectus, about 55 percent of players who have ended up getting Tommy John surgery had spent at least one stint on the DL in the season prior to being diagnosed with a torn UCL, with other muscles getting strained in an effort to help stabilize the elbow.

Corey Dawkins wrote in the Hardball Times back in 2010:

How many times have you heard about a pitcher (usually) complaining about forearm cramping, tightness or inflammation, then coming back to pitch? Then, either later that season or the following season, after it’s originally been reported that the pitcher will be shut down for a few weeks to reduce inflammation, he ends up on the surgeon’s table.”

This is my fear for Gray. Dawkins also writes:

“The (prior) maladies cited (for the first DL stint) ran the gamut from ‘soreness’ to ‘inflammation’ to ‘tendonitis’ to ‘bone spurs’ to ‘neuritis,’ but in all of these cases, a more serious problem lurked below the surface, whether misdiagnosed, intentionally obscured, or not yet fully deteriorated (since a weakness at one point can cause an injury cascade).”

It could be that Gray’s collapse in 2016 could be related to a bigger injury that the Athletics have yet to realize and that Gray has yet to admit as a possibility. A torn ulnar collateral ligament never fully heals, it can only be stabilized and for that, surgery is the best way to go.

If Gray does end up having to go under the knife, although that is still speculation at this point, the A’s have wasted time in waiting to get Gray to have all the necessary tests. He should have been shut down after his completely uncharacteristic start back in April until the cause of dramatic collapse could be properly diagnosed.

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