Getting the Most out of Robbie Ray

A glimpse at Robbie Ray might look like an ace at work. Four times this season, Ray has struck out at least 10 batters while walking one hitter or fewer. Only Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer have more matching games. Since the beginning of the 2016 season, Ray has struck out 31% of batters faced; among the 183 starters with at least 200 innings, only Scherzer and Sale have higher strikeout rates. The strikeouts are great, but Ray’s walk rates and inability to pitch deep into games has long held him back. While he has continued to work to get better, the changes have continued to lead Ray back to being the generally above-average pitcher he’s always been.

Ray’s first full season with the Diamondbacks in 2015 was a solid one, with a 22% strikeout rate, a 9% walk rate, and an ERA and FIP both in the mid-threes, about 10% better than average. Ray tried to get better by changing his delivery slightly, as he told David Laurila in 2016, and become a “strikeout madman”, as August Fagerstrom detailed. His strikeouts went way up, but so did his homers, though his 3.76 FIP was again about 10% better than average. Some bad luck on balls in play meant an ugly 4.90 ERA and the questions began about Ray’s ability to pitch deep into games and limit hard contact.

In 2017, Ray ditched his changeup as well as his sinker and used his curve much more, as Eno Sarris wrote at the beginning of the season. Ray increased his strikeout rate even more, though his walk rate climbed a bit as well and he still gave up his fair share of homers on the way to a 3.72 FIP that was 15% better than league average. It was Ray’s best season and whatever bad luck he had from 2016 turned itself around in 2017, to the tune of a 2.89 ERA and a handful of down-ballot Cy Young votes. Last year was a disappointing one, as Ray missed two months with an oblique injury and posted his first below-average FIP in Arizona. His walk rate surged, though after a rough start to open the second half, he closed the season well with a 3.78 FIP that was about 10% better than average and a 2.83 ERA thanks to a very low BABIP.

Heading into this season, it was reasonable to expect a slightly above-average season for the 27-year-old. That doesn’t mean Ray didn’t make changes to try and adapt and make himself better. After a couple less-than-stellar starts to open the year, Ray turned in a 10-strikeout performance against the Rangers, and manager Torey Lovullo discussed the positive aspects of Ray’s game along with the negative in this Zach Buchanan piece.

Lovullo called Ray “a pretty darn good pitcher in this league,” and he and the Diamondbacks will be happy to take plenty of starts like that in the future. But they’ll also watch him wistfully, hoping that things click as they did two years ago, that he once again bridges the gap from pretty good to great.

“Today, the first five innings were pretty clean and pretty good. We want that to continue,” Lovullo said. “We want him to pitch deeper into games. We know that he’s capable of doing that.”

It should come as no surprise given all of his walks and strikeouts that Ray isn’t the most efficient pitcher. Last season, his 4.4 pitches per plate appearance was the worst in the game among pitchers with at least 100 innings. Here are Ray’s numbers over the last few years in terms of innings and pitches per start as well as pitches per plate appearance.

Robbie Ray’s Inefficient Ways
2015 4.14 5.55 98
2016 4.09 5.45 99
2017 4.08 5.79 97
2018 4.35 5.15 95
2019 4.08 6.04 97

Ray has long had poor third-time-through-the-order splits, and his 5.34 FIP since 2016 ranks 78th out of 86 pitchers with at least 100 innings facing the third time through the order, while his 3.56 FIP the first two times through the order is among the top quarter of starter pitchers. Ray’s velocity tends to go down during his starts.

Robbie Ray’s Diminished Velocity in 2019
Inning FA Velocity
1 93.0 mph
2 92.7 mph
3 92.7 mph
4 92.4 mph
5 92.4 mph
6 92.1 mph

Not only does Ray lose velocity as the game goes on, but it is also important to note that Ray’s velocity is down generally from what it was two years ago when he had his best season. As we can see from the previous table, Ray is lasting longer in games this year and is quite a bit more efficient in starts than he was a year ago. Making fewer pitches should allow Ray to keep his velocity deeper into games and allow him to remain effective. It appears that the strategy to pitch deeper into games is two-fold.

The first strategy is to pitch with a slightly more cavalier attitude with the bases empty. He throws a lot more fastballs on the first pitch with nobody on as well as more fastballs generally, and the result has been fewer walks but also fewer strikeouts, as well as 18 of Ray’s 23 homers coming with the bases empty. The second strategy has been to bring back his sinker. He throws it most often in 0-0, 1-1, 2-0, and 3-1 counts, where a strikeout isn’t as likely and a ball in play might yield a quick out. Ray’s sinker has been hit pretty hard, and while he’s pitching deeper into games, he hasn’t been more effective. Ray’s 4.26 FIP is just better than average with a slightly better 3.91 ERA. We might think that getting Ray out of Arizona might help with the home runs, but his home/road splits this year are nearly identical, showing no major difference in homers whether he’s in Arizona or on the road.

Trying to pitch deeper into games is an admirable goal, but it doesn’t seem to make Ray any better. In some ways, he’s an ideal pitcher to target at the deadline for a playoff-bound team. Ray could ditch the sinker and be more aggressive with strikeouts with the bases empty in the playoffs knowing he only needs to pitch five innings. He’s already one of the better pitchers in the game the first couple times through the order, making him an ideal playoff starter considering the expanded bullpens of September and October. Ray is an above-average pitcher overall, but his deficiencies might always prevent him from being something more.

Any team acquiring Ray needs to be able to understand what makes Ray good and what situations could lead to struggles in order to maximize his performance. He probably fits best on a team like the Yankees. They’ve got their playoff spot nearly wrapped up, they’ve got a solid bullpen, but they need starters with the bulk of their rotation hurt or ineffective.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

If the Yankees got Ray, their plan should be to tell him to go all out for 5 innings and be great and then turn it over to the pen? Sounds good to me. Probably not good enough for Yankees fans, but it definitely sounds like it would be successful and is probably their best option at this point, barring something crazy. Yankees are also wanting to beef up the pen before tomorrow so it would also help out Ray if they got him. They’re rumored to want to have a Ray-Bradley package which I think would work well.

Funny, you try to mention how good Ray is to most Yankee fans and they look at you like you’re crazy. He’s got the best SIERA of any of the rumored trade deadline candidates except for Matt Boyd.

4 years ago

Thing is, most all pitchers on the Yankees only ever go 5 innings anyway so it is hardly a departure from norm. Regarding Ray and Yankees fans, Yankee fans (and east-coasters in general) tend to have a very east-coast-centric view on baseball. You see it in fantasy leagues, even high stakes ones where Yankee players routinely are overvalued and guys like Bird with no route to playing time somehow get drafted preseason.