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A Mostly Unknown Pitcher May Be Among Baseball’s Best

The Oakland Athletics faced the Texas Rangers in a nationally televised game Monday night, and most baseball fans were already well acquainted with the Rangers’ starting pitcher, Yu Darvish. Darvish was a prized signing from Japan several off-seasons ago; he very nearly pitched a perfect game last year; and he has made the All-Star team in both of his major-league seasons (finishing second in voting for the Cy Young Award a season ago).

But viewers may not have been as familiar with the kid taking the mound opposite Darvish.

That pitcher was Sonny Gray, Oakland’s 24-year-old ace. Gray was a rookie just last season, and although he was rated Baseball America’s 65th-best prospect going into the 2012 campaign, he’d dropped out of its Top 100 entirely in 2013 (after a season spent posting underwhelming numbers in the minors). Gray regained his prospect bona fides in the first half of 2013 — vastly improving his strikeout-to-walk ratio — and in early July he was called up by the A’s to make his big-league debut.

That was 293 days ago. Ever since, we could make the case that Gray has been one of the top five pitchers in all of Major League Baseball. Or at least by ERA: Gray’s 2.31 mark since July 10 ranks third among major league pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched. Gray also turned heads by tossing eight shutout innings against the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of last year’s American League Division Series, and so far this year, he has a microscopic 1.76 ERA — a number that includes Monday’s dazzling complete-game three-hitter over Darvish and the Rangers.

Gray isn’t a finished product by any means, and some of those eye-catching ERA numbers are destined to come back down to Earth. For instance, there’s no question he has benefitted from allowing a .277 batting average on balls in play, so Gray’s Fielding Independent Pitching marks foretell a bit of a correction. And while he ranks third in ERA since his debut, his FIP ranking is seventh — and even that number is aided by an incredibly low rate of home runs allowed per fly ball, as well as by pitching in cavernous Coliseum, one of the best pitcher’s parks in the majors. After adjusting for all of those factors, Gray might be a top 10 pitcher.

And might be top 10 is decidedly not bad for a guy who was rehabilitating his prospect status in the minor leagues a year ago. Past pitchers who put up similar FIP numbers relative to the league at ages 23 and 24, as Gray has, run the gamut from Herb Score, Tom Bradley and Ed Halicki (who produced just 21.1 combined wins above replacement from age 25 onward) to Bert Blyleven, Javier Vazquez and Johan Santana (142.1 combined WAR from age 25). But if Gray keeps pitching like he did Monday night, he’ll be on track to join or surpass that latter group.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.