Derek Johnson was the pitching coach at Vanderbilt when he first saw Sonny Gray, who lived near the Nashville campus.
“He was about 15 and one of our pitchers was throwing a bullpen [session] where fans could watch,” said Johnson, now the pitching coach for the Brewers. “I remember this punk kid with frosty blond, spiky hair standing there watching and after the bullpen session was over, he asked me how hard the pitcher threw. I said, ‘About 90 [mph],’ and he said, ‘I can throw 90 right now.’
“He told me his name was Sonny Gray. A couple weeks later, I saw him play, and he was throwing 90. He was good.”
Several years later, Gray wound up at Vanderbilt, and Johnson believes that confidence will serve him well now that he’s with the Yankees following a trade Monday that sent the right-hander from Oakland to The Bronx.
Gray is the centerpiece of the Yankees’ push to get back to the postseason after general manager Brian Cashman previously acquired Jaime Garcia from the Twins and Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson from the White Sox.
The 5-foot-10 Gray isn’t built like most of the rest of the Yankees’ rotation, but Johnson believes he will thrive in the spotlight.
“He’ll certainly take care of the baseball end of it,” Johnson said of the 27-year-old. “I’ve never seen any fear — ever. There will be an adjustment to New York and all that goes on there, but knowing the playoffs are right on his fingertips will be good for him.”
Changes of scenery aren’t always a good thing, though.
Johnson was also the pitching coach for David Price at Vanderbilt. The star lefty’s time in Boston has gone anything but smoothly. Since signing a $217 million contract before last season, Price hasn’t pitched to his usual standards — in part because of injuries — and clashed with the Boston media.
“It’s a new environment and I think Price will be fine and his performance has been fine,” Johnson said. “When you’re in a place like Boston or New York, you have so many people in your ear, it can take away your focus. You have to find ways to deal with it. Sonny has a great attitude, so I don’t think he’ll have a problem.”
Gray will find out soon enough if he’s built for it after pitching in Oakland, where he performed well in the 2013 ALDS as a rookie with the A’s. He pitched eight shutout innings in a 1-0 win against the Tigers in Game 2 before giving up three runs in five innings in a 3-0 Game 5 loss, when he was outdueled by Justin Verlander.
Since then, Gray has established himself as one of the top pitchers in the American League when healthy. Gray was on the DL twice during a terrible 2016 season with a strained right forearm and a strained right trapezius. He also was sidelined by a strained lat earlier this season, but has pitched well since his return.
That is why the Yankees were willing to give up prospects Jorge Mateo, James Kaprielian and Dustin Fowler in exchange for Gray.
“He’s always had great raw stuff, and he’s really learned how to pitch,” Johnson said. “He can navigate his way through games when he doesn’t have his best stuff. I think he was hurt last year more than some knew. It speaks to how much he wants to be out there that he pitched anyway.”
Johnson also pointed out that Gray led his high school to consecutive state titles in football.
“He’s used to winning,” Johnson said. “He was the quarterback and the leader of the team. Teammates gravitate toward him. I mean, his name is Sonny. That’s the kind of guy he is. I think he’s gonna fit in well. I’m excited for him.”