Embed from Getty Images
Just who is Robbie Ray? You may remember has as part of a 3-player deal that occurred a couple months after the 2013 season ended where the Washington Nationals received Doug Fister from the Tigers in exchange for two pitching prospects, Ray and Ian Krol. At the time, it looked like a pretty nice fleece job done by the Nationals to acquire Fister’s final two arbitration seasons for a couple of pitching prospects that were pretty decent but didn’t have overly impressive numbers in the Minors up to that point.
Ray spent most of the 2014 season for the Tigers at AAA, but did log 9 appearances and 6 starts for the Major League squad. However, the 8.16 ERA and 1.88 WHIP in 28.2 IP along with an unimpressive AAA performance must have been enough for the Tigers to have seen from the lefty, as they then shipped him over to the Diamondbacks in a 3-team deal that netted them Shane Greene upon the conclusion of the 2014 season.
Ray arrived with the Diamondbacks and was assigned to AAA out of Spring Training where after 9 starts, he had a 3.67 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, and 57 K/27 BB in 41.2 IP. Ray struck out a lot of batters, but he also issued a ton of free passes and got hit pretty hard as well. So when the Diamondbacks called him up when the need arose, not much was to be expected of the 23-year old lefty, especially after his huge disappointment in Detroit.
With the strong 7 inning performance where he did not allow an earned run against the Rangers on Tuesday, Ray improved to 3-4 with a 2.16 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, and 38 K/12 BB in 50 IP. Those are some quality numbers and at first glance at his career numbers both in the Minors and Majors, it would be easy to dismiss this performance as a fluke. However, three things that we need to look at are his pitch velocity, arm slot, and pitch arsenal.
Last season, Ray’s average fastball velocity according to PITCHf/x data was 91.3 MPH, and that was with a few relief appearances worked in there (pitchers generally throw harder in relief because they don’t have to “save” their arm for the whole game). But this season in his time with the D-Backs, he’s averaged 93.3 MPH — a full two ticks higher on the radar gun. We see it so often how pitchers with increased velocity from one year to the next go on to have more success for the simple reason that harder thrown pitches are generally harder for batters to hit. Then looking at FanGraphs, we can see his release point from last year was higher and closer to his head than this year. In other words, he is pitching the ball from a lower arm slot that is more of a 3/4 motion than overhand. So perhaps Ray is finding much more comfort from a lower arm slot, and maybe it is even the reason why he is generating more velocity. But whatever it is, it seems to be working for him and is likely more than just a coincidence. Lastly, his pitch arsenal from last season had him throwing his slider just 3.5% of the time and his changeup 27.1%. But this season, he’s using his slider much more often at 17.1% while his changeup is down to 9.2%. Also, his slider appears to be much harder with a 4.2% velocity increase from last season.
So looking at these things, we are seeing a different Robbie Ray than before, which could arguably be the reasons why Ray is having much better luck this season. And while Ray is bound to regress from his excellent ERA and WHIP numbers that he is posting right now, he may not completely implode. His BABIP currently sits at .255, which is lower than the league average around .300, but as a fly ball heavy pitcher he should be able to post a lower BABIP as long as he’s not giving up a ton of line drives (which he’s not). Then his strand rate of 73.2% is slightly above the league average, but it’s certainly not crazy high. But where his regression should come primarily is in the form of more home runs allowed. As a fly ball pitcher, he can post below a below average BABIP, but that also should mean that he should allow home runs at a higher rate than his current 0.36 HR/9 mark — especially pitching his home games in a hitter friendly park at Chase Field. If he maintains his current strikeout and walk rates, then I could see Ray finishing the season around a 3.50 ERA and 1.15 WHIP, which would be much more than anyone expected from him.
Let’s take a look at the rest of Tuesday’s action!