The keyword for Robbie Ray at the end of 2016 was “potential”. His K rate was insane - it trailed only the late Jose Fernandez among all qualified major-league pitchers. But along with it went questions of wildness (his BB% was top 10 among the same group) and efficiency (sixth in the NL for pitches per plate appearance). This showed itself in appearances like the one on August 25, where Robbie struck out seven in five innings, but walked four, and had to leave at that point, having thrown 108 pitches. Still, three days earlier, Michael wrote, “After previously dismissing the notion of Ray developing into a potential ace multiple times, I’m starting to see the potential.” He wasn’t wrong.
Ray’s 2016 was an aberration, in that pitchers with such high K-rates just don’t have ERAs almost at five - Ray ended the season at 4.90. Those strikeouts mean fewer balls in play, which usually means fewer hits and runs. But Ray had a BABIP of .355 in 2016, mostly due to a heavy line-drive rate of 28%, above MLB average of 25%. That all changed in 2017: Ray cut 85 points off his BABIP, slashing it to .270, largely because the line-drive rate dropped to 23%. That change was crucial in helping Robbie slice more than two runs off his ERA, down to 2.89. For Ray’s K-rate and BB-rates actually were little changed: indeed, his K:BB ratio was identical in 2016 and 2017, at 3.07.
In short, the big difference is that hitters were making far worse contact. Pitches that were being lined for hits two seasons ago, turned into weak grounders or fly-ball outs last year. Nothing illustrated this better than the streak of five consecutive starts Ray enjoyed, from May 20 through June 11, including the four-hit shutout of the Pirates above. Over those games, he allowed ONE earned run over 37 innings of work, giving up a total of 14 hits and nine walks, while striking out 48. This was certainly helped by BABIP fortune: his average there was .178, basically half what it had been over the entirety of 2016. But it was also the result of some phenomenally good pitching.
This was, arguably, the greatest streak of five starts by a Diamondbacks pitcher in team history. It was the second time we’d had someone throw that many in a row with a Game Score of 73 or more. Randy Johnson (of course!) had done it from July 26-August 15 in 2002, but his ERA over those games was 0.88, compared to Ray’s 0.24. We certainly can’t forget that Brandon Webb had an ERA of 0.00 over five consecutive games in 2007. However, the Game Score in the opener there was only 70, and he generally struck out batters at a significantly lower rate than Ray: 35 over the 41 innings covered by those appearances.
Michael saw it coming, writing here on May 9th, “Robbie Ray’s breakout year may be finally happening,” and noting that Ray’s release points for his different pitches were coming closer together, making it harder for hitter to figure out what was coming. This is likely one-half of the reason for Robbie’s giant step forward. The other was identified by Sean in his piece at the other end of the streak: the blossoming of Ray’s curveball as a reliable third pitch. In 2017, it turned from a pitch that he hardly ever threw, and with limited effectiveness, to something that batters frequently took for called strikes, often missed when they swung, and on which they rarely got good wood.
Despite Ray making his first All-Star Game in July, there were some bumps along the road to come. Not least the large one on the side of Robbie’s head, after he was pole-axed by a line-drive off the bat of the Cardinals’ Luke Voit - the ball had an estimated exit velocity of 108.1 mph. It was one of the scariest moments in D-backs history, but Ray walked off the field under his own power. He said, “It looked a lot scarier than it was. I threw the pitch. I saw the ball coming. I knew it was going to hit me. I guess, subconsciously, my brain told my body to turn my head—it all happened way too quickly for me to actually think that... It didn’t really hurt. I had adrenaline running.”
Ray hit the concussion DL, but was back on the mound in the majors less than a month later, allowing one run over five innings with nine strikeouts, against the Mets in New York. There was no apparent long-lasting impact If anything, he pitched better afterward, with a 2.28 ERA over his final eight starts. His regular season ended with a 1.2 inning outing in the last game - that strangely precise outing gave Ray exactly 162 innings for the year, allowing him to count as a qualifying pitcher for statistical purposes. His ERA of 2.89 was fourth-best in the National League, and his K-rate of 12.1 per nine innings was #1.
There is still room for improvement from Ray. While his ERA was drastically improved, his FIP (fielding independent ERA) was basically unchanged, and there are grounds for fearing potential regression in 2018. What would help enormously would be cutting back on the walks. Ray’s rate last year of 3.9 per nine innings was the highest in the majors among qualifying pitchers. Cutting back on those would both help directly, and allow Ray to go deeper into games - his average of 5.8 innings per start was distinctly middle of the road. Robbie’s post-season start against LA was also disappointing, although throwing three relief innings in the wild-card game may have impacted that.
Ray is in his first year of arbitration this winter, and whatever he gets, it’ll be a steal based on his performance in 2017. He was worth 5.0 bWAR, and his seventh place Cy Young finish was fully justified. I wonder if the team might look to tie Ray up for a long-term contract? Regardless, watching him pitch last season was a joy, the likes of which we have not seen in Arizona for a very long time. I look forward to more of the same, or better still, for many seasons to come.