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Robbie Ray’s breakout year may be finally happening

The 25-year-old lefty has been off to a strong start in 2017. What has been the key to his success and is it sustainable moving forward?

The Diamondbacks have two incredibly talented pitchers in the middle of their rotation in Taijuan Walker and Robbie Ray. Both pitchers have big time fastballs and secondary pitches that keep batters off balance when they can command them. Both pitchers have the potential to be an Ace with the floor of being a solid #3 starter. With two full seasons in the majors, Ray and Walker have seen enough MLB action where you expect them to take the next step forward. I’ll spread it out into a two part series for an easier read.

Robbie Ray

Perhaps offering the Diamondbacks the best chance to be their future ace, Ray a pitcher with big time stuff but lacked consistent command. Walks are still a problem for Ray, who averages a 9.3% walk rate for his career and 11.2% for the 2017 season in 6 starts. Despite a lack of progress in reducing walk rate, although half of his current walk total coming in 2 starts, Ray’s other facets have vastly improved. The strikeouts are up to 32.1%, showing that last year’s improvements have lasting impact. Even though last season Ray finished with a 4.90 ERA, his FIP and xFIP improved to 3.76 and 3.45, suggesting future improvements will happen because the ERA is held up by an unsustainable .352 BABIP, which is Paul Goldschmidt territory. Considering that hitters have more control on batted ball outcomes than pitchers, the .352 number wasn’t going to repeat in 2017.

Ray has been more consistent with the length of his outings. He’s pitched at least into the 6th inning of all of his starts and only failed to clear 6 innings in two of those starts. Last year he pitched 5 innings or less in 15 of 32 starts, some of that due to Chip Hale having a quicker hook than Torey Lovullo with his pitchers, because the pitch count ran up too quickly. You can attribute some of that due to insanely bad batted ball luck, but he also had a lot of ABs where foul balls became an issue. His swinging strike rate last year was 11.2%, this year it’s up to 13.2% to start the season. That’s also led to a 7% decrease in contact rate on swings. We’re at the part of the season where batted ball outcomes haven’t completely stabilized, so I’ll avoid using them for now and revisit them later.

Ray’s issues have mostly been with the lack of a 3rd reliable pitch. He’s been mostly fastball-slider for two seasons and on days he didn’t have one or the other, he had short games. When people think 3rd pitch, the most commonly thought of pitch is a change-up because a pitcher would have a fastball, breaking ball, and an offspeed pitch. Ray’s change-up is not MLB quality and it shouldn’t be a pitch he’s forced to develop. Instead, we’re seeing an increase in his breaking balls, both the curveball and the slider. The curveball has been the reliable 3rd pitch that Ray’s been looking for, not necessarily as a put-away pitch, but one that can steal strikes and plant seeds in the hitter’s minds. With two breaking balls, which are mostly a feel pitch, you worry a bit about the two pitches blending together. The curveball does get more vertical movement than the slider right now, so that’s a good sign in terms of Ray being able to use 2 different pitches.

Two issues I had with Ray before the season was an inconsistent release point and tunneling effect of his pitches made it easier for batters to figure out what was coming. I hypothesized that was the reason for his inconsistent starts and struggles with pitch count that led to half his starts lasting 5 innings or less. Looking at horizontal and vertical release points, they are becoming closer together and that means his release point is becoming consistent for all of his pitches. That translates into batters having a tougher time deciphering his pitches based off release point alone and the less information a batter has, the tougher time he’ll have of figuring out a strategy to hit the pitch in the half-second it takes for the ball to reach home plate. That’s translated to a lower contact rate and a higher swing strike rate to start the season. His 3.47 ERA is very close to the 3.45 xFIP number he posted last year, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Can Ray make these improvements sustainable? Absolutely! His FIP and xFIP sit at 3.22 and 2.98 respectively, which says his peripherals back up the ERA and expected ERA regression suggests improvement with a normalization in HR/FB rate towards league average. His ground ball, fly ball, line drive, and HR/FB rate are similar to where they were last year, so maybe those numbers are what we can reasonably expect from him on a given season. Going even further, Baseball Prospectus credits him with a Deserved Run Average (DRA) of 2.38, a cFIP of 84, DRA- of 53. All of those marks are outstanding and suggest Ray is an ever better pitcher than ERA/FIP/xFIP gives credit for. Part of that is due to a bad Diamondbacks defense, but Ray is arguably the least reliant pitcher on defense in the rotation.

With Ray, I believe 2017 is indeed going to be his breakout season. His release points have become more consistent, leading to more whiffs and less hits. That’s resulted in longer outings, going more than 5 innings in all 6 of his starts after only getting there half the time. The walks are still an issue with a walk rate of 11.2%, which is why his WHIP is at 1.27, but his hit rate is 6.9 per 9 innings and off a near league average .296 BABIP. I think when the walks come down that Ray will become one of the game’s top pitchers, that’s the only issue he really has left at this point. Ray’s value varies, going from 0.8 fWAR, 1.0 bWAR, and 1.23 WARP. With all the inconsistencies that Ray has exhibited the last two seasons, the Dbacks patience may be paying off. I’ll revisit this later in the season, most likely the All-Star Break, to see if Ray is truly having a breakout season or if this is an early-season mirage. In the mean time, go enjoy watching him pitch.