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Robbie Ray Found His Third Pitch (And It’s Amazing)

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What is fueling Robbie Ray’s dominance so far in 2017?

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Right now, Robbie Ray leads the NL in bWAR (3.2) and is 5th in fWAR (2.2). He’s seeing a huge 4.1% increase (32.4%) in his already-elite K% from last season (28.1%), now ranking second-best in the NL to only Max Scherzer. But what’s really driving Robbie Ray right now is his latest five game stretch (5/20 - 6/11), which has the following line:

5 GS, 37 IP, 14 H, 1 ER, 48 K, 9 BB, 0.24 ERA, 1.68 FIP

That is outright dominance. That is good for a 36.1% K% against a 6.8% BB%. And I think this dramatic drop in BB% is really important - during this time, we’ve seen seen a significant change in his pitch mix. Namely, Robbie is throwing his curveball. A lot. And the results have been tremendous.

First, let’s see his pitch mix from the start of 2016 until now:

Robbie Ray 2016-2017 Pitch Mix

I narrowed down the pitches to fastball/slider/curveball for simplicity. It is worth noting that Ray has pretty much stopped throwing any changeups and sinkers, but those have been a pretty small portion of his pitch mix. What we do see, however, is a huge increase in curveballs - especially over the past 2+ months - and a steady drop in sliders.

The decrease in sliders may be surprising. Ray has a fantastic slider: it has the fifth highest whiff rate in baseball, behind these names: Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Sean Manaea, and Dallas Keuchel. He also has the 9th highest swing rate with the pitch. Lots of swings + lots of whiffs = an amazing stirkeout pitch. The problem? He only throws it in the zone about 27% of the time. As you can see HERE, Robbie Ray has the second-lowest called strike to called ball ratio on his slider.

If batters weren’t swinging at the pitch, he wasn’t getting a strike. Being fastball + slider meant that Robbie was frequently falling behind batters, which meant that he was walking a lot of guys or (like we saw last year) getting his fastball squared up in hitters’ counts.

The curveball, however, paints a much different story. Of his 293 curveballs this year, he’s gotten 73 called strikes. At 25%, this is the 5th-best rate in baseball among curveballs. But that’s not all: it also has the 4th-best whiff rate in baseball (46.3%). In other words, when Robbie Ray throws his curveball, he gets a called strike a 25% of the time, a swing 37% of the time (nearly half of which are misses), and a called ball 37% of the time.

What happens when batters swing at the pitch? Nearly half the time (46%), they swing and miss. 28% of the time, they foul it off. That only leaves about a quarter of the time that they SWING at the pitch (or a little less than 10% of the time he throws it) that a batter manages to hit it in play. Let’s see how his batted ball outcomes look:

Robbie Ray Curveball Batted Ball Outcomes

Stat Outcome MLB Rank
Stat Outcome MLB Rank
BAA 0.152 5th
SLG 0.174 1st
ISO 0.022 1st
GB/BIP 61% 7th highest
FB/BIP 7% 3rd lowest
LD/BIP 21% 11th lowest
PU/BIP 11% 4th highest

Wow. Just wow. Batters just simply aren’t squaring up his curveball, at all. He’s given up 6 singles and 1 double with the pitch - that’s it. He also gets tons of groundballs with it and he’s gotten more pop-ups than flyballs with it.

So, let’s summarize his curveball:

  • It has one of the best called strike rates in the MLB
  • It has one of the best whiff rates in the MLB
  • When batters hit his curveball, they hit it for the lowest ISO in the MLB and a ton of grounders

So, am I saying that Robbie Ray might just have the best curveball in baseball?

FanGraphs

Considering that Carlos Martinez has only thrown 13 curveballs all season, I think I can confidently say Robbie Ray has had the best curveball in the NL in 2017. Just for kicks, how does his 4-seam fastball and slider rank?

FanGraphs
FanGraphs

So far into 2017, Robbie Ray has the best fastball, the best curveball, and the 12th best slider in the NL.

This is really mind-blowing, honestly. Last year, the narrative around Ray was that he really needed a third pitch in order to pitch deeper into games and to keep batters from sitting on his fastball. And out of nowhere, here comes his curveball that he barely threw into being one of, if not the best curveballs in baseball.

Robbie Ray has adapted and he’s been absolutely dominant. With his curveball, he is able to get a lot more strikes, and therefore reduce his walk numbers, while still getting plenty of strikeouts and weak contact. He’s throwing his slider less, but now he gets to save it as a put-away pitch for strikeouts. And he still has his absolutely electric fastball.

Batters will adjust to Ray’s curveball. But it looks like that with this curveball from out-of-nowhere, Robbie Ray, Ace Pitcher, has finally arrived.