Robbie Ray Stays in Toronto

The first member of our Top 50 Free Agents list has signed, and as you might expect given that this is baseball and not basketball, it was a minor signing. Robbie Ray is remaining in Toronto after the Blue Jays extended him a one-year, $8 million contract. Depending on what you think of Ray, it’s either a sign of a slow market or a fairly priced reclamation project — for what it’s worth, Craig Edwards projected exactly a one-year, $8 million deal.

For me, there are two interesting parts of the Ray signing. First, Robbie Ray felt this close to breaking into the top tier of starters for years. In his first five seasons with the Diamondbacks, he was frequently exciting and sometimes excellent. He put up a 2.89 ERA in 2017, and it wasn’t some hollow number with concerning peripherals; he induced swinging strikes on 14.2% of his pitches, a career high, and struck out 32.8% of opposing batters.

He also walked 10.7% of opposing batters, and unfortunately, that wasn’t a fluke. He walked 13.3% the next year and a grisly 17.9% in 2020, a sure way to go from inconsistent to ineffective. Missing bats is the most valuable pitching skill, but all the bat missing in the world won’t help you when that many batters are getting a free trip down to first.

What led to all those walks? As is so often the case, it was a number of factors all tied together. Ray has never displayed pinpoint control; his game has always been about opponents’ inability to put a bat on the ball rather than pinpoint location. In the past, he compensated for that by flooding the strike zone with fastballs; in each year from 2015 to 2017, he put more fastballs than league average in the strike zone and simply dared opponents to hit them.

There was one problem: opponents hit them. Hitters were already doing more damage on contact by 2017 — whether you prefer barrel rate, hard-hit rate, or wOBACON — and 2018 was even worse. Ray countered, whether consciously or unconsciously, by throwing fewer strikes. He dropped his fastball zone rate by two percentage points in 2018, another percentage point in 2019, and yet another in 2020.

This might sound to you like I’m splitting hairs, and that’s true to some extent. We’re talking about something like 70 extra fastballs outside of the zone in a full season, which hardly seems meaningful; two extra per start, more or less. That might not sound like much, but it’s a big deal! Batters don’t do a lot of chasing on fastballs outside the zone, so that’s turning strikes into balls, and Ray could hardly afford that. He fell behind in the count 1-0 against 47.8% of the batters he faced in 2020, the third-worst rate in baseball among pitchers who faced 200 or more batters. Suddenly, Ray was working from behind rather than from ahead.

That presents one major problem: Ray’s breaking pitches are best used to chase whiffs rather than to work back into a plate appearance. That’s not unique to him, but it does strain the arsenal of a pitcher who relies on a fastball and two breaking balls. In 2020, for example, he threw a slider or curve 55% of the time when he was ahead in the count but only 34% when he was behind in the count.

That’s pitching 101, but it doesn’t leave Ray a lot of options. Batters are terrible at making contact with his curveball and slider, but if he’s throwing them a third of the time rather than 55%, that’s a boatload of extra fastballs added to the equation, and nothing good comes of that. Indeed, Ray’s fastball gets tattooed as much as ever when opponents make contact, and it’s missing fewer bats than ever before.

In 2020, this confluence of bad forces came to a head. He got behind in the count too often, which meant he gave opponents plenty of fastballs in hitter’s counts. That helps explain the career-high barrel rate and hard-hit rate he allowed — it’s a lot easier to hit the ball hard when you’re looking for a specific pitch, as batters ahead in the count so often are. When he didn’t give in, he didn’t get his breaking balls in the zone often enough to make batters pay; they walked 27.5% of the time after getting ahead in the count 1-0 (league average was 15.9%).

What’s the solution to all of this? This feels too simple, but I think it is just to throw more strikes. That’s easier said than done, and it’s not as though Ray is trying to be wild, but just because something is obvious doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Look at it this way: here’s where Ray located his first-pitch fastballs from his debut through 2019:

Here’s where he located them in 2020:

It’s a small sample, of course, which naturally makes the graph look more diffuse, but that pocket of red low and inside to right-handed batters isn’t great; it’s as likely as not to end up a ball, and he left his fair share of fastballs above the zone as well. Why? I couldn’t tell you. I did, however, notice a mechanical change that Ray made that the Blue Jays might look into reverting. For example, here’s a pitch in 2018:

Here’s another one in 2019:

Finally, here’s the 2020 version:

It’s not huge, but Ray has changed his setup. He’s now starting his feet together and rocking his left foot into a plant position before pitching. I’m not a pitching coach, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a pitcher complicated his motion and lost a bit of ability to repeat it. Just a slight moment of disorientation where your plant foot is half an inch misplaced could be the difference between locating and not. The Blue Jays certainly thought so; he was using his old delivery again by year’s end:

This could be small sample size theater, but Ray was markedly better at finding the strike zone in his four starts after going to Toronto. He fell behind 1-0 only 38.1% of the time (against 53.9% in Arizona), cut his walk rate from an unplayable 20.1% to a still-bad 14.4%, and slashed his run prevention numbers — three runs of ERA, two of FIP, and 1.5 of xFIP. In other words, he was an acceptable pitcher in Toronto after being sub-replacement level in the desert.

If Ray returns close to his prior level of performance, he’ll be quite a bargain for the Blue Jays. They don’t even need the top end of his always-tantalizing potential; if he can make 30 starts and put up average numbers, that’s a bargain for $8 million. The fact that the Blue Jays traded for him, saw him improve, and then signed him early in the offseason should tell you that they’re believers, or at least that they think they can fix some of what was ailing him in Arizona.

It’s too early to know what the rest of Toronto’s offseason will look like, but this move lines up well with their biggest need: pitching, particularly of the starting variety. Before signing Ray, the Blue Jays were looking at a top trio of Hyun Jin Ryu, Ross Stripling, and top prospect Nate Pearson. Ray slots in nicely, and the team may be on the hunt for more pitching still; Tanner Roark isn’t exciting, even as a fifth starter, and the depth behind that gets a little scary.

If they decide it’s time to make a move, the payroll can certainly handle it. Even with Ray, the team has only $89 million committed for 2021, which would be their lowest payroll since 2011. While all teams are likely to tighten their belts this offseason, the Jays could add one or two more free agents to shore up weaknesses and still come in at a reasonable number. With most of the lineup already constructed — among next year’s prospective starters, only Travis Shaw and Randal Grichuk are 29 or older — much of that payroll room can go to pitching.

Will it be a long, cold winter for free agents? We didn’t learn anything either way in this signing. Instead, this was a marriage of convenience: Ray fits the Blue Jays’ needs perfectly, and he won’t break the bank. That’s fine, though — no one was going to give Ray a huge deal this winter, and he can use a one-year platform to see if he can shake off the funk of the last year-plus and get back to his competent and tantalizing form of a few years ago.





Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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tbhbeary
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tbhbeary

Good move by Toronto. They need pitching help. This will help take the pressure off of Nate Pearson.

emh1969
Member
emh1969

Agree, this is a good deal for the Blue Jays. Ray isn’t that expensive if he continues to pitch poorly. Meanwhile, there’s a decent amount of upside. Ray averaged about 2.5 WAR and 150 IP from 2015-2019. Even a buyer’s market, getting a potential 2-3 WAR pitcher for $8 million is a nice move.