Robbie Ray Finds the Strike Zone

When Robbie Ray walked Freddie Freeman in the first inning of his start on Tuesday evening, it was the first time he had walked a batter since April 18, ending a 20.2-inning stretch without allowing a free pass. That’s quite an accomplishment for someone who has always been known for his elite strikeout abilities and a serious lack of control. Ray’s career walk rate sits at 10.9%, a touch above league average, but over the last four years, it’s ballooned to 12.3% and reached a career worst 17.9% last year. But across six starts this season, his walk rate has fallen to 7.2%, easily a career best.

As you’d expect with such a drastic change in his control, Ray has started pounding the zone this year.

In 2020, he was tied with Shane Bieber for the lowest Zone% among all pitchers with at least 50 innings pitches at 42.6%. This season, he’s among the league leaders in Zone%, at 56.7%. During the pitch tracking era, that’s the largest increase in Zone% from one season to the next by a wide margin.

Biggest Year-to-Year Zone% Changes
Player Seasons Zone% Δ
Robbie Ray 2020-2021 14.1%
Matt Albers 2010-2011 12.9%
Randall Delgado 2012-2013 12.0%
Aaron Nola 2020-2021 10.5%
Luis Avilán 2017-2018 10.2%
Aroldis Chapman 2015-2016 9.9%
Jeff Gray 2011-2012 9.8%
Ryan Weber 2015-2016 9.7%
Shane Greene 2014-2015 9.6%
Luis Castillo 2019-2020 9.5%

Like Bieber, Ray has consistently located his breaking pitches outside of the zone to induce swings and misses throughout his career. It’s not a bad strategy when your stuff is good enough to generate high whiff rates and when you can count on a high chase rate. But it also requires locating your fastball in the zone regularly to earn strikes early in the count or when the batter gets ahead. Ray was able to do that with his heater earlier in his career and skated by with average walk rates. Unfortunately, batters figured out his approach and began sitting on his fastball. So Ray started to nibble more and more with his fastball, exacerbating the already poor control he exhibited. Here’s a look at the zone rate of each of his pitches in his arsenal during his career as well as last year, and how they’ve changed this year.

Robbie Ray, per pitch type Zone%
Pitch Type 2021 2020 Career
Four-seam Fastball 63.0% 49.3% 54.5%
Curveball 48.4% 40.5% 41.4%
Slider 49.5% 33.0% 36.9%

Among his individual pitches, Ray’s slider has seen the largest increase in the rate of pitches located in the zone. But his fastball follows close behind with an increase of more than 13 points over last year. His heater now has the 14th-highest zone rate for any type of fastball thrown more than 100 times this year. By pounding the zone with all of his pitches, it should be no surprise that his first-pitch strike rate has jumped up to 66.9% this year, an increase of over 14 points and the 12th-highest rate among qualified starters.

What’s helped Ray be aggressive with his fastball is that he’s throwing it with the hardest velocity of his career — 95.2 mph on average, nearly two ticks faster than last year. He’s also increased the usage of that pitch to nearly 60%, the highest rate of his career. But while his walk rate has certainly benefited from his new zone-heavy approach, batters are still doing plenty of damage against his fastball. His results were so terrible last year, he couldn’t help but improve, but 2021’s numbers are still rather bad: a .405 wOBA and a .420 xwOBA. The former sits just below league average for a four-seamer, the latter just a hair above; both would represent career highs if you ignore his disastrous season last year (a .474 wOBA and .446 xwOBA). Opposing batters are swinging and missing nearly a quarter of the time they offer at the pitch, though, and with so many additional fastballs thrown this year, that’s a significant increase in total whiffs.

And what of all those additional breaking balls that are finding the zone? Ray’s slider, in particular, has lost a bit of its effectiveness. The whiff rate on that pitch has fallen to a career-low 38.3%, and he’s allowing the highest wOBA of his career off of it. After throwing it around 30% of the time the last few years, he’s dropped his usage of it to just 18.4%. Batters are chasing and missing his slider at similar rates to his career norms, but they’re not missing it when he locates it in the zone.

That presents a bit of a conundrum for Ray. His greatly improved walk rate is certainly related to his willingness to locate all of his pitches in the zone far more often this year. But his greatest strength has always been convincing batters to chase his breaking balls out of the zone. He’s over-adjusted his approach after seeing his walk rate balloon in 2020. Still, fewer base runners has helped him push his ERA to the lowest it’s been since 2017. He’s outpacing his FIP by more than a run, but that’s mostly due to an enormous home run rate. His xFIP and xERA are both quite good and sit much closer to his ERA.

The added velocity on Ray’s fastball gave him the confidence to locate it in the zone more often. But he’s taken that approach and applied to his entire repertoire, abandoning the strategy and strengths that led to his early career success. It’s only six starts, and he’s struck out nine or more batters in three of his last four starts. It’s certainly possible he’s still making adjustments and will find a happy medium between avoiding walks and generating strikeouts. His ability to provide quality innings for the Blue Jays was seriously in question entering this year. But despite the few lingering issues with his new approach, it looks like simply throwing strikes has worked out for him.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Ray has been a positive in a year when pitching wise much has gone wrong for the Jays, either due to health of effectiveness.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeD

Maybe they should all start wearing tighter pants.

2 years ago
Reply to  Tristan

Apparently he added muscle over the off season, so the pants might just be held constant.