Robbie Ray Already Made Adjustments We Should Care About

Funny how we have not written much at FanGraphs about Robbie Ray this season. Eno Sarris lauded Ray’s velocity in brief in the spring; in July I expressed enthusiasm in Ray but didn’t give him the most glowing recommendation; all of which finally culminated with August Fagerstrom’s piece two-and-a-half weeks ago declaring Ray MLB’s newest strikeout madman. That actually seems like a lot of coverage, now that I mention it all, and it kind of is. But it’s all more recent and probably deserved to happen sooner, especially since Ray has posted a strikeout rate of 9.6 K/9 or better in every month this season.

Sarris noted that Ray is mostly a two-pitch guy, thereby dampening his value. Fagerstrom uncovered related weaknesses during Ray’s third trip through the order, likely correlating negatively with his lack of variety. Then again, Fagerstrom acknowledges how big a role sequencing plays in a pitcher’s success, and Ray has been woefully unlucky in this regard, forcing the split between his ERA and FIP (E-F) wide open.

Let’s play pretend. Let’s say Ray never develops a third pitch. Let’s say Ray rides the status quo through next season. Would that be so bad? Probably not, because Ray is doing his best Yu Darvish impression (sound familiar?):

Ray as Darvish
Name K% BB% xFIP
Yu Darvish (2012-16) 30.2% 9.3% 3.10
Robbie Ray (2016) 28.3% 8.1% 3.29

Darvish has made both high strikeout and walk rates plus 93 mph heat work for him. So has Ray. Even from a batted ball standpoint, they share similarities:

Batted Ball Profile Comparison
Name LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB Pull% Cent% Oppo% Hard%
Yu Darvish (2012-16) 22.00% 41.30% 36.70% 11.10% 11.40% 42.50% 34.50% 23.10% 29.50%
Robbie Ray (2016) 22.90% 45.80% 31.30% 6.70% 15.10% 35.80% 35.00% 29.30% 36.30%

Ray trumps Darvish in the ground ball department. Can’t hit a home run on a ground ball (unless you’re Yasiel Puig). All else, though, Darvish prevails by generating twice as many pop-ups and allowing less hard contact, the latter helping Darvish keep his HR/FB rate much closer to league-average than Ray can. And while Darvish allows more pulled batted balls — a positive correlate with a hitter’s isolated power — the ability of Ray’s opponents to spray the ball to all fields bodes ill for his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). It all probably explains away most of why Ray’s career BABIP is 30-plus points higher than Darvish’s.

Still, even Ray, in his inherently flawed form, has been a valuable fantasy asset in terms of peripherals. Among qualified pitchers, he ranks fourth in xFIP behind three well-regarded names in the business. (Some Dodger pitcher would nudge Ray to fifth had the former not booked an ill-advised vacation to the disabled list.) That’s huge. That’s an incredible feat.

More incredible, perhaps, is Ray has only gotten better as the season wears on:

I honestly have no idea why I chose an 11-game rolling average. I’m an idiot, and I noticed it too late, and I’m too lazy to fix it. Still, the point stands. Ray has held at least an 11 K/9 for more than half the season. His marginal (per-game) walk rate over the last 10 starts continues to drop, converging on roughly 2 BB/9.

In far fewer words, Ray’s recent 10-game pitching line appears as such: 12.2 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 48% GB, 2.66 xFIP. Oh, right, the ground ball rate (GB%) — that has slowly increased, too, finally stabilizing at 45% or so.

Thanks to Brooks Baseball, I can confirm this recent success isn’t random or entirely regression-fueled. Ray has already made adjustments. He’s now leaning on the pitches that serve him best. From his June 27 start onward, Ray has all but abandoned his change-up — yes, the one that Fagerstrom identified as the worst in baseball — now throwing it less than 2% of the time, down from 11.5% in April and May. He now throws his four-seamer more than half the time, always (as opposed to sometimes), regardless of whether he’s facing a hitter for the first time or the third.

The best development of all, though, is Ray’s insistence on throwing his slider almost twice as often as before. Sabermetrically speaking, it’s easily his best pitch (among pitches he throws regularly, aka not his curve), inducing a 42.6% whiff rate and 58.3%(!) ground ball rate. It’s still vulnerable to the long ball, but given it generates three times as many whiffs and an elite ground ball rate, it’s a worthy substitution.

We’ve seen this narrative before. Matt Shoemaker, a late bloomer who showed us his promise in 2014 and his flaws in 2015, made adjustments earlier this season, choosing to simply throw his best pitch — his splitter — way more often. It’s optimization. Ray started to figure things out — we were just too stupid to notice. The change-up he no longer throws no longer hurts him — not the third time through the order, not ever (almost). His sinker has hurt him far less, too, and he’s featuring it much less often anyway.

(You’d do well to read Ray’s responses to David Laurila’s inquiries, published simultaneously wit this piece. Ray claims to throws a change; perhaps Ray’s deliberate attempt to evolve the pitch has caused Brooks Baseball to mis-classify it. Something to keep in mind. Regardless, whether that pitch has been abandoned or simply reborn, it’s all working better than before.)

So I ask: if someone told you so-and-so was a poor man’s Yu Darvish, would you be interested? Because that’s the important issue here. That’s Ray. It really couldn’t get any worse than it was — both a commendation and a condemnation. His WHIP was (is) ugly as all hell, but if the BABIP settles down a bit and he keeps an extra ball or two in the park, whether by skill or luck — hot damn, we’ve got ourselves an elite starting pitcher, even if it comes with less-than-stellar baserunner prevention.

But that’s just it: as the title alludes, Ray is taking strides. Maybe he never really figures it out, never diversifies his portfolio, never adds the third reliable pitch that propels him to stardom. If he’s going to only have two effective pitches, he might as well use them most often. Like Shoemaker, it seems like such a simple fix. We — the royal we, the editorial — don’t always take the most direct route to success, though, so one ought to consider forgiveness.

A poor man’s Yu Darvish finding ways to improve is a pitcher that deeply intrigues me.

If you’re trying to squeak into the playoffs or looking for an impact starter for the home stretch, Ray could be your boy. His BABIP has boarded the regression train back to normalcy, allowing a roughly-league-average .306 mark in his last seven starts and a superb .244 in his last three. And with at least four projected starts against teams who hit left-handed pitching very poorly — the Orioles, Dodgers and Braves all rank among the bottom four in wOBA versus LHPs — Ray stands a legitimate chance to be your playoff MVP(itcher).

As for 2017: who knows, but be ready.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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Lunch Anglemember
6 years ago

I dig the analysis, but can K/9 be retired? I don’t think there’s any context where K% isn’t a better metric.

Jackie T.
6 years ago

I think that’s a fair point. When we’re talking about fantasy, any league with an IP limit is essentially a k/9 league (or k/inning, really).

Domingo Ayala
6 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

Is it really better or are they just different ways of looking at the same thing?