The Second Arrival of Robbie Ray

We keep learning more about baseball. Every year, we learn things we didn’t know. Every year, we have new data to back up things we might’ve already suspected. The level of knowledge is ever-increasing. You’d think that might make baseball analysis easier. The more you know, the more you should be able to say, right? It’s true, now we can say more — and we can say more with data. But if anything, all this knowledge is making everything more complicated. The more we learn about the game, the more we learn about the gray areas. The more we learn about the gray areas, the more we have to hedge against making strong, conclusive statements.

So it’s more complicated to do player analysis, and it’s more complicated to do transaction analysis. At least, it’s more difficult to assign the winner and the loser of a transaction. There are generally too many different things at play. I think it’s notable, then, when strong conclusions are still reached. It’s notable to me when the analytical community comes down strongly on one side of something, because situations are grayer than ever. It must mean something when a firm consensus is reached despite all the complexities.

With decreasing frequency do writers come out strongly against a given transaction. So it’s worth reflecting on the trade that sent Doug Fister from the Tigers to the Nationals. That one didn’t make any sense. That was a pretty clear steal, on the Nationals’ part. Everybody agreed the Tigers didn’t get enough. I know, because I was one of them. The deal looked terribly lopsided at the time, which is something we don’t get to experience so much anymore.

And you know what? It probably was lopsided. The Tigers probably didn’t get enough. The trade legitimately sent waves through the industry. But you have to look at where we are now. Regardless of whether this could’ve been predicted: Robbie Ray looks like he might be emerging. Ray’s talent is coming to the surface.

Of course, Ray isn’t with the Tigers anymore. They moved on after a year, essentially swapping Ray for Shane Greene. However much the Tigers might’ve loved Ray when they first got him, they must’ve been underwhelmed by what came next. As a starter in the majors, Ray fell short of six strikeouts per nine innings. As a starter in Triple-A, Ray fell short of seven strikeouts per nine innings. Those rates can sometimes be acceptable, but Ray issued too many walks. The bottom line: It looked like Ray might’ve topped out as a Triple-A pitcher. He featured neither the stuff nor the results to hold interest.

So Detroit flipped Ray to Arizona. It seemed like a good trade at the time — Greene had been good the year before. Ray was somewhat forgotten about; the Fister trade was further in the past. With the Diamondbacks, Ray didn’t have to live up to being the guy exchanged for Doug Fister. With the Diamondbacks, Ray is unlocking a new level.

This post is basically built around one fact. I looked at every pitcher who started at least one game in both 2014 and 2015. For each pitcher, I investigated any potential changes in average fastball velocity. The biggest increase belongs to Juan Nicasio, up almost five mph. But that doesn’t count — Nicasio’s one start this year lasted two innings and 41 pitches. He started, but he was still a reliever. The next name on the list is Robbie Ray’s. His average fastball has increased nearly three ticks.

Toward the end of last season, Ray had a couple stints in the bullpen, where his velocity played up. This year that’s carried over, even though he’s being asked to throw six innings a start. His bullpen velocity boost has sustained, and now we have his fastball at 93.5 mph. For the sake of reference, we have Clayton Kershaw at 93.6. David Price at 93.8. Ray has a big-league lefty fastball now, and even though this post isn’t about him, Doug Fister is down two ticks, and he’s already been on the disabled list. Ray’s stock is going up. Fister’s stock isn’t.

It’s commonly noted that velocity isn’t everything, and that’s true, because the most important thing is putting your pitches where you want them to be. And on top of that, Ray has adjusted his breaking ball. He’s gone to a slurve with a little more depth, and his breaking-ball whiff rate has more than doubled. But there’s no getting around the fact that velocity is important. Margins of error, and all that stuff. Ray has increased his fastball usage more than 10 percentage points, and the fastball itself is getting more whiffs. So Ray has been having success, even while pitching without so many of his changeups, which were thought to be good, once upon a time.

It’s evident that the fastball is faster. And compared to last year, in the majors, Ray is getting more swings and misses. He’s getting more strikeouts, and issuing fewer walks. He’s having more success against righties. And there was progress in Triple-A, as well. Between 2014 and 2015, in Triple-A, Ray nearly doubled his strikeout rate. There were still walks — Ray still isn’t a complete starting pitcher — but those were offset. Ray was getting ahead more often in the minors, and he’s getting ahead more often in the majors. He’s checking off so many of the right boxes.

How do you make a starting pitcher throw harder? I don’t know what Ray has been up to. Maybe he’s changed his diet, or his workout routine. Maybe he’s made a very subtle change to his delivery. But I can at least identify a less-subtle change to his delivery. A picture of Ray’s arm slot from a start in 2014:

robbie-ray-2014-release

And here’s Ray throwing a fastball in 2015:

robbie-ray-2015-release

Look at the left hand, and look at the left elbow, relative to Ray’s head and shoulder. Ray has dropped his arm down, and while sometimes people think that’s a sign of injury, this seems like something more deliberate. Maybe Ray is more comfortable with a lower arm slot. Maybe he finds it to be smoother, and easier to transfer all the force from his body into his arm. It’s just one change — and maybe not the change — but the results are promising.

Interestingly enough, back in the minors some years ago, Ray made the opposite adjustment:

“I’ve also raised my arm angle from low three-quarter to high three-quarter and that helps me keep the ball in the zone and doesn’t let the ball run to the arm side.”

Who knows? Ray’s thrown with a lower slot before. He’s thrown with a higher slot before. It appears like he’s gone from lower to higher to lower again. At the moment, the lower slot is working out. Ray’s having more success than he had before at the game’s highest level.

He still isn’t great yet. He’s not that close, and he might never get there. Ray has work remaining to do, and like so many other pitchers, he might never do it. But, at one point, the Tigers liked Ray’s velocity. Now he’s either rediscovered it or taken it to a new height. He’s establishing himself as a big-league pitcher, in a big-league rotation, and now it’s Doug Fister who’s dealing with his own question marks. Ray’s just busy raising his own ceiling. The point isn’t necessarily that the initial trade was good. Who’s to say what Ray was most likely to be? Who’s to say whether he would’ve found the velocity with Detroit? But that was a trade that people hated. People don’t hate trades so much anymore. They hated that one. And now look. We think we understand how players develop. We do understand — a little bit.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Annie Lennox
7 years ago

What’s with all the Arizona Diamondback articles?

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago
Reply to  Annie Lennox

Yeah, Jeff, c’mon, why can’t you post constantly about the Red Sox, like we accused you of yesterday, or constantly about the Astros, like we accused you of the day before that, or constantly about the Mariners, like we accused you of last week?

Dave Stewart
7 years ago

Wooosh.

kdl
7 years ago
Reply to  Dave Stewart

Rare is the person who mocks himself for missing a joke.
(Hint: Two people can riff on the same joke.)