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An explanation behind why Robbie Ray struggles with efficiency on the mound

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Despite possessing a big fastball, the young lefty struggles at times to put away hitters with his secondary stuff. That causes his pitch count to run up and leads to short outings.

When it comes to pitching, perhaps the most underrated facet of the game is being able to disguise pitches. Pitchers rely on velocity, movement, and deception to fool hitters, with most of the best pitchers in the game being able to use all three tools. Batters have about a quarter of a second to make a decision to swing or not, basing that decision off of the ability to recognize spin and the release point. Pitchers that can provide a consistent release point with all of their pitches and similar looking movement and spin are the ones that are able to fool hitters into making a bad decision. Pitchers that don’t tend to struggle with long pitch counts, long innings, and get lit up.

One pitcher in particular that seems to be affected by the inability to disguise pitches is Diamondbacks lefty Robbie Ray. Ray’s repertoire is well-known at this point, he attacks with 95+ MPH heat that he loves throwing to the glove-side of the plate and complements that with a back-foot slider vs. RHB. He’ll flip in a token change-up or curveball if he needs to, but he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher. Even with that mix, he doesn’t disguise the two pitches very well, which is why he gets hit hard or has long ABs with foul balls.

For Inside the ‘Zona, Jeff Wiser wrote about pitch sequences that work or don’t work based on release point and tunneling effect. The idea of pitch tunnels is being able to disguise the movement in the amount of time the hitter has to make a decision. Pitches that look the same in that time period and break late are more effective than pitches that have a ton of break, but break early in the pitch tunnel. If you are interested in reading more about the topic of pitch tunnels, I recommend you click on this link to a Baseball Prospectus article.

We’ll start with comparing the Diamondbacks Opening Day Starter.

Pitch Combinations That Are Working

Zack Greinke’s four-seamer and changeup, slider

Despite very average, or even below-average velocity, Zack Greinke has thrown his four-seamer over 40% of the time over the last three years. It’s a pitch he can locate where he wants to for the most part, and it’s one he uses to get ahead. His changeup looks very similar to the fastball for hitters before the decision point – both pitches are released from similar slots and tunnel very well. After the decision point, they showcase above average break differential, meaning that after the hitter has decided to swing (or not swing), the two pitches have above average separation. This applies to his slider as well, as it’s released similar to the heater and tunnels at an above average rate, then separates more than average, too. Simply put, hitters have a very, very difficult time determining what’s coming at them. Is it a four-seamer? Changeup? Slider? The hitter just can’t determine with much certainty and it shows in Greinke’s long-standing success.

Other pairings listed in the starting rotation candidates are Patrick Corbin’s sinker-slider combination that propelled him to All-Star status four seasons ago and Taijuan Walker and Archie Bradley’s four-seam fastball and curveball combination. Here, we can juxtaposition to what he wrote about Robbie Ray.

Robbie Ray’s four-seam fastball and changeup, slider and curveball

Let’s think this through: Robbie Ray has a big fastball but struggles to put hitters away. Why is that? He just can’t seem to retire hitters with any kind of efficiency. They seem to foul off or take his secondary pitches rather than swing and miss them. They don’t seem to take them looking either. In short, they don’t really seem to work. So let’s take a look at least one hypothesis: hitters can tell his pitches apart.

As compared to his four-seamer, Ray’s changeup and slider differentiate at the release point more so than average, meaning they’re released from different slots (as compared to the average pitcher). His curve is released with average differentiation. From the release point, he’s not hiding any of these offerings well. In terms of tunneling, his changeup and curveball are less similar to his four-seamer than those of his peers, while his slider tunnels averagely. With these two bases covered, it’s clear that the offerings aren’t particularly well disguised before the hitter has to choose to swing or not, suggesting that they may be picking these secondaries up as compared to his four-seamer. Piling on, the post-tunnel break of all three secondaries is below average when following his four-seamer, meaning they are perhaps easier to make contact with as the hitter is trying to make contact with these secondary offerings.

While trying to avoid the bias of what we’ve seen from Ray and just lean on the information at hand, the two things seem to mesh unfortunately well. While control and command are issues and Ray’s raw stuff isn’t necessarily tremendous (outside of the heater), he doesn’t appear to be doing himself any favors in terms of disguising his pitches or separating them after the hitter has made up his mind. Simply put, they’re just not being fooled. Of note, his secondary pitches don’t look much, if any, better when compared to his sinker rather than his four-seamer, so there’s no easy fix here.

Whether Ray is completely aware of it or not, he’s tipping his pitches to the hitter with the different release points. The more the hitter knows about what’s coming, the better he can adjust to the pitch by either fouling it off, hitting it hard, or laying off of it. This can be a fixable problem if the pitching coaches are aware of it and try to fix it in bullpen sessions. Ray doesn’t have great command on his own, which means tipping his pitches compounds the issue. Those two things together lead to short outings where the pitch count is hovering around 100 in the 5th inning and why his hard hit rate is 36% despite having solid pure stuff.

Ray’s stuff isn’t the issue, which was why he was able to punch out 218 batters last season, but if efficiency is what you’re looking for, you probably won’t get it any time soon. The efficiency could improve if Ray can tweak his mechanics enough to avoid tipping his pitches. That will result in quicker ABs and more favorable outcomes. Until then, we’ll be complaining about his lack of efficiency on the mound on the days he starts.