The 2016 season has not gone as the Diamondbacks expected, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any bright spots. One of those bright spots has been lefty Robbie Ray. The 4.31 ERA and 4.82 RA/9 metrics don’t completely tell the story of how far the lefty has developed on the mound, because those numbers come over the course of a full season. Over the course of the season, Robbie Ray went from unwatchable to must-watch on the mound.
The Diamondbacks acquired Ray prior to the 2015 season in a trade that sent Didi Gregorius to the Yankees as well as prospect Domingo Leyba to the Diamondbacks. Ray had a solid opening season debut for the team, occasionally showcasing that speed but could not command the fastball or slider consistently enough to put away hitters. You would see occasional flashes of brilliance, but not enough consistency for the results to match the stuff. For a lefty with a repertoire that reminds you of Randy Johnson, he went through the same problems RJ did early in his career. Fortunately for Ray, he does have Randy Johnson to lean on for guidance.
The season certainly hasn’t gone completely as Ray would have liked, as evidenced by the average season numbers. However, Ray seems to have taken a step forward in his development since that start against the Marlins on June 12th. That game, Ray threw 116 pitches and pitched 7 2⁄3 innings of shutout baseball. It may have been that game where the Dbacks told Ray to just do what he does best and that’s aggressively attack the top of the zone with fastballs and pitch the slider off of that. I was attending that game and that was the first time I saw Ray look as dominant as he could be, as he was just overpowering Marlins hitters with 95+ MPH heat and an improved slider that’s getting solid results even though the command is still somewhat inconsistent. It seems from that point on, Ray evolved into the type of pitcher his arm talent suggested.
Taking a look at Ray’s velocity chart from Brooks Baseball, his average 4-seam fastball velocity has jumped from 94 MPH in April all the way up to 96 MPH in August. That velocity is in the Randy Johnson tier for left-handed starters. Ray’s fastball is a special one, not solely for velocity but it has a ton of life on it and is deadly when Ray chooses to elevate it above the strike zone. The fastball isn’t the only pitch that’s made strides, his slider has also progressed.
It’s also no coincidence that the resurgence in Ray’s strikeout rate also comes from an increased whiff percentage on his slider. Ray’s slider doesn’t have the movement that RJ’s did, but it gets results. Since June 12, the whiff rate on his slider is 23.5%, but has been well over 25% in both July and August. The high whiff rate on the slider has been a key behind Ray’s elite strikeout rate of 28.2%. While his walks are a bit high for my liking at 8.1% (and improving), his strikeout minus walk rate would also put him in elite company at over 20%. When he has both pitches working, these are the results Ray gets.
Over the season, Ray showed an elite strikeout rate but got hit pretty hard and walks were an issue. Coming into that start on June 12th, Robbie had a 72/31 strikeout to walk ratio and an ERA of 5.14. Since then, Ray has averaged 6.1 innings per start and has a 102/19 strikeout to walk ratio. The RA/9 of 4.23 and ERA of 3.66 doesn’t look impressive on paper, but that may be a case of batted ball luck since his FIP over that span is an elite 2.73. Batted ball luck is not a sustainable measure for performance, as Ray has yielded a .359. It’s safe to say that number will not repeat itself in 2016, considering his batted ball profile didn’t change too drastically relative to his career averages.
In Spring Training, I wrote that Ray needs to step up and continue his development as a pitcher. I was thinking he’d develop into a middle of the rotation starter, but that may be his absolute floor at this point. On June 12th, Ray was one bad start away from possibly losing his rotation spot. Since then, he’s pitched towards the level of a #2 starter with #1-esque peripherals with a 31.3% strikeout rate and a 5.8% walk rate. After previously dismissing the notion of Ray developing into a potential ace multiple times, I’m starting to see the potential. Now he just needs to continue to sustain these peripherals at least for the rest of the season.