Robbie Ray is Finally In Control

Robbie Ray is having a huge season thus far. He has a 3.42 ERA and 1.10 WHIP in 47.3 innings and his 3.29 SIERA stands as a career best, even better than in 2017 when he posted a 2.89 ERA but a 3.53 SIERA. While being consistently maddening throughout his career – even in 2017 he had a 4.57 ERA through 8 starts and was likely on some waiver wires only to deliver a 2.24 ERA in his final 20 starts – he didn’t lose widespread fantasy appeal until last year’s 6.62 ERA in 51.7 innings. Let’s dive a bit deeper and see what Ray is doing to drive this success and how much of it is sustainable.

Arsenal is always the easiest place to start in a pitcher breakdown. Off the top we see a velo boost that has his fastball sitting at 95.3 mph, a career high. Looking at just four-seamers, his usage is also up 11 points to 58%. The results have been a bit neutered by the .238 ISO thanks to 7 HR in 125 PA. The .237/.280/.475 line is still much better than last year’s .292/.464/.689, but a bit worse than 2019’s .221/.322/.391 which is a little surprising given the improvements in not only the velocity, but also control.

An inability to command and control his fastball has been a staple in Ray’s profile prior to this year. Among the pitchers with at least 5000 fastballs thrown from 2014-2020, Ray’s 14% walk rate is 2nd-highest behind only Sonny Gray at 15%. It just felt like the cost of doing business, though, as it came with a 26% strikeout rate that ranks 10th in the group. Meanwhile, Gray’s 13% mark was 42nd. Ray has drastically changed this in 2021.

His 5% BB rate is 4th-best among 42 pitchers with at least 350 four-seamers. His new attack with the fastball is showing in a career best 62% Zone rate, much better than his career worst 50% rate last year. He has never had a consistent location profile with the fastball, which makes sense given how wild he was with it, so I’m reluctant to look for much meaning in where he is throwing his fastballs within the zone.

He hasn’t used the slider or curveball as much as normal with the extra pitches going into the fastball, but also an experimental changeup. He has thrown it just 41 times, good for 5% of his total pitches, and of course the one hit (1-for-7) he gave up with it was a home run, but it has only ended 9 plate appearances all year. It is a total chase pitch with just a 27% Zone rate (102nd of 116 pitches w/40 changes thrown), but they just aren’t chasing as his 20% Chase rate ranks 103rd.

Nick Pollack highlights how there could be some hope found in his last outing:

I wouldn’t say he truly throws one now as the 10 thrown were his 2nd-most in any game this year (he threw 14 on 4/18 at KC), but it was easily the most effective he has been with it. The key was the same he has been seeing across his entire arsenal: attacking the zone. He threw 7-of-10 in the zone, he had thrown just 4 of his previous 31 in the zone to that point.

It was also the game when he allowed the homer, his only hit off the pitch, but hey, when you are actually throwing them in and near the zone, there are going to be some hits. If he can build off this and turn it into a usable pitch (at least 10% usage), it can be a game-changer and help cut into his 131-point career platoon split.

Another big change in his profile has been a spike in groundballs, matching his career-high 46% rate, with a lot of that spike coming out of his line drive which currently sits at a career-low 17% rate. He has also seen a big shift in his spray chart with his pull rate down 9 points to 33% while hits up the middle have jumped 14 points to 46%, though I’m not sure how much of this is in his control or at all a purposeful change.

Ray has consistently been hit hard over his career and this year is no different. His exit velocity is up to a career-high 92.6 mph, though exit velos are up across the league with the new ball so I am more mentioning to point out that his newfound success hasn’t included better contact management. You might have already guessed that with his 2.3 HR/9.

His 12 home runs are most in baseball and his newfound walk rate is no doubt playing a role in the fact that nine of them are solo shots. Right-handers have hit 10 of the 12 as Nick Maton has clubbed both of the lefty homers. The continued home run and hard-hit troubles seem to suggest that a lot of this new success hinges on the walk rate maintaining strong.

Given that 15 of his 18 earned runs have come off the home run, he has an insane 97% LOB rate. That obviously won’t hold, but neither should his 26% HR/FB rate (career 16%) so he will start to give up more runs outside of the longball while ideally cutting into the home run rate, too.

It is an interesting profile because of the contradictory factors we are seeing within it. The core strikeout (29%) and walk (6%) skills have been excellent and that is always a strong foundation to work off, but a 2.3 HR/9 is untenable as the LOB% will slide back toward his 76% career mark. Ray has a big test later this week with his first trip to the Bronx this year and second time facing the Yankees (5 IP/2 ER/3 K & BB in his season opener on Apr. 12th).

I’m surprised he is still available in 40% of ESPN leagues as I think he is no worse than a team streamer right now. He has been a top 50 starter per Razzball’s Player Rater and he’s only that low because of a 2-1 record. He is 18th in K% (among 66 qualified SPs), 23rd in BB%, tied for 26th in ERA, and tied for 21st in WHIP.

Even with the Yankees road match on tap, he should be fully rostered in all formats as we watch this new approach play out. I understand skipping this week’s matchup if you can afford to be that picky, but in 12 teams or deeper, he is a locked in starter for me. Keep an eye on the Zone and HR rates as well as the changeup usage, they will offer some key insights on Ray as the season develops.

Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer and on Twitch at sporer.

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Good analysis. Thanks. Ray certainly has been enigmatic over the last few years. Would be nice to see him maintain some consistency.