Toronto Adds To Stockpile of Arms, Acquires Ray From D-Backs

Robbie Ray had often been mentioned in hot stove rumors. As the Diamondbacks have toed the line between buying and selling, adding and subtracting, Ray was someone whose name you’d hear in connection to possible trades to contending teams looking for rotation help. He always stayed put though, even as his service clock ticked away and his electric arm never quite broke out the way he or his team hoped.

With just hours to spare before Monday’s trade deadline, Ray was finally traded. The Toronto Blue Jays made him the second starting pitcher they’d acquired in as many days, sending Travis Bergen to Arizona to complete the deal. To put it mildly, the circumstances of Ray’s exit from the Diamondbacks are not what the team hoped for. Though it was always unlikely Arizona would challenge the Dodgers for the division, they had still hoped to contend for a wild card spot. Instead, they entered Monday holding a record of 14-21, last place in the NL West. Ray, meanwhile, no longer offers multiple years of team control, as he’s set to enter free agency after this season. Even if he were pitching like a top-of-the-rotation arm, the days of him netting an impact prospect are over.

Alas, Ray is not pitching like a top-of-the-rotation arm. Over seven starts this season, he has thrown 31 innings and allowed 27 runs (7.84 ERA), has struck out 43, and has walked an MLB-leading 31 batters. Ray has never been what you would call a control wizard. Out of 146 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings since he debuted in 2014, only two have walked a greater percentage of hitters than Ray (10.9%). He’d always been able to make that work, however, because he’s struck out the seventh-highest percentage of hitters (28.7%) in that span. That exorbitant strikeout rate has been steady, too — if his current rate holds, this would be his fourth-straight season striking out at least 12 batters per nine innings.

You can buy yourself a lot of wiggle room with a strikeout rate that high, but not nearly enough to make one walk per inning acceptable. As you might expect, Ray’s zone rate is the lowest of his career by three points, currently sitting at 35.4%. A low zone rate is hardly a death sentence — right now, baseball’s lowest zone rate belongs to Shane Bieber, who also happens to be the major league leader in pitching WAR. The thing about throwing outside the zone, however, is you need hitters to chase those pitches. Bieber gets a chase rate of 38.9%, second-highest in baseball. Ray’s is 25.8%, fifth-lowest in baseball and nearly six points lower than the career-high 31.5% rate he achieved in 2019.

That lost ability to get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone might imply some diminished stuff, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Ray’s fastball velocity is actually up a significant amount from 2019, from an average of 92.4 mph to 93.9 mph, the highest it’s sat since 2017. His slider movement is nothing to write home about, but it never has been, and he’s still gotten elite whiff rates with it.

If it isn’t a matter of stuff, perhaps it’s an issue of sequencing. Last season, Ray’s first-pitch strike rate sat at 59.4%, only slightly above his career average. This year, that has dipped all the way to 46.1% — the lowest in the majors, with just one other pitcher with at least 30 innings pitched even coming within five points of him. As a result, he’s thrown 35.7% of his pitches from behind in the count this season, also the highest mark in the majors (and seven points higher than last year).

Those are both troubling and abrupt developments, but they have happened despite no real difference in what Ray is throwing in any given count. Here’s his 2019 count breakdown followed by 2020’s:

If stuff and pitch selection aren’t responsible for Ray’s walk troubles, then the issue could be mechanical, which would explain why a team like the Blue Jays would want to take a chance on him. As Ben Clemens explained when the team acquired Taijuan Walker from Seattle over the weekend, Toronto isn’t getting the quality innings it hoped to from Matt Shoemaker, Trent Thornton, and Nate Pearson, leaving its rotation in danger of becoming the revolving door it was a year ago. Walker’s addition gives the team something of a low-ceiling, high-floor arm who can eat innings whether he’s in the rotation, following an opener, or pitching in a long-relief role. Similarly, just before the deadline on Monday, the Blue Jays added another flexible option in Ross Stripling (analysis forthcoming).

Ray, however, is the opposite. If his control problems persist, he offers neither quality nor quantity in terms of his innings, always putting the team in danger of not only falling behind early, but also having to use a large number of relievers to get through the rest of the game. If Toronto can sort him out to the degree that he returns to something close to the pitcher he’s been in the past, he could become the second-best starter on the team. The Blue Jays also get the added bonus of getting an extended look at a pending free agent heading into an offseason in which the club should have no shortage of money to spend.

Instead of the premium package the Diamondbacks likely asked for when discussing Ray in previous years, the team will receive Bergen, a left-handed pitcher who leaves the Blue Jays organization for a second time in the last two seasons. The 26-year-old was a seventh-round pick by Toronto in 2015 and reached Double-A before being selected by the Giants in the Rule 5 draft two winters ago. Bergen threw 19.2 innings for San Francisco last season with a 5.49 ERA and 5.55 FIP before being returned to Toronto.

Bergen’s stock has risen recently, however, due to a substantial uptick in his velocity. Eric Longenhagen recently added him to THE BOARD, having this to say about his development:

Both before and immediately after his shoulder injury, Bergen was pitching with below-average velocity, sitting 89-92. He has had a spike in 2020 and is now sitting 93-95 and touching 96. He also has a big-breaking curveball averaging nearly 2900 rpm. All of this has come in concert with a delivery that looks more fluid and explosive. He’s a big league-ready lefty middle relief piece with three options remaining, and I expect he’ll live on the active roster membrane for a while.

Bergen has made just one appearance for the Blue Jays this season, striking out three batters in 1.2 innings. He should get ample opportunities to work out of the Diamondbacks bullpen, which has posted the seventh-highest ERA in the majors this season.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Sonny L
Sonny L

***Moviefone Voice***

From the twisted mind of Carson Cistuli comes this summer’s most ambitious and fearless production:

Robbie Ray is…the Fireman 🚒

A long reliever with wicked stuff and a reckless abandon of the strike zone.