2019 STATS: 33 GS, 174.1 IP, 4.34 ERA, 4.29 FIP, xFIP 3.76, 103 ERA+, 1.5 bWAR, 2.4 fWAR, 12.1 K/9, 4.3 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9
2019 SALARY: $6,050,000
2020 STATUS: Arbitration 3 ($10,800,000)
Fans of the Arizona Diamondbacks need no introduction to Robbie Ray at this point. 2019 was Ray’s fifth season with the club, having been acquired, along with Domingo Leyba, in a three-team trade in which the Diamondbacks parted ways with Didi Gregorius. Since then, Robbie Ray has been the source of both great anticipation and wonder as well as great frustration. When Ray is on, he is one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in all of baseball and can carve up opposing lineups in spectacular fashion. When he is having a rough outing, he can struggle to complete five innings of work before throwing 100 pitches during which he will still strike out six or seven, but then also walk four and allow a handful of hits. While the potential to dominate continues to exist, so does the propensity to get lit up. It isn’t even as if he is more prone to one than the other, making it even harder to know what to expect on a game-to-game baiss. Sure, for the season one can predict where Ray will finish, but game-to-game it is a crapshoot. Of the players not encumbered by serious injury, there is probably no more polarizing player on the roster when it comes to those that want to get rid of Ray and those who think he is a fine pitcher.
What kind of a season did Robbie Ray have? In 10 starts on the season, he registered a Game Score of 60 or higher, including a 71 against the Cardinals on July 12. However, nine times on the season, Ray had a Game Score below 50, including a score of 23 he was hung with when he surrendered five runs in a start that lasted only two-thirds of an inning on September 11 against the Mets in New York. Ray’s other 14 starts all scored from 50-59. That’s almost as average as it comes.
As has been the case throughout his career, Ray posted an elite strikeout rate (12.13 SO9) for 2019. That was good for the second-best rate in the NL. He finished with the fifth-most strikeouts in the league. As also has been the case for Ray’s career though, this ability to rack up the strikeouts, often as not, worked against him. This dichotomy was on full display in back-to-back games in April. At home against the Rangers on April 10, Ray had one of his best outings of the season when he struck out ten and walked only one, allowing one run on two hits. His pitch count reached 95 though, so he was lifted after the end of the inning. Still, all-in-all the sort of outing anyone should be happy to get. In his very next start on the 16th in Atlanta, Ray actually managed six full innings of work and threw only 100 pitches. However, he also allowed five runs on seven hits and four walks while striking out only four batters. This woeful line was despite getting 21 strikes called looking and piling on another 10 swing-and-miss strikes. Getting batters into two-strike counts was not the issue. Finishing off the batters was.Location proved a problem and batters were able to foul off pitches until they drew a walk or slapped a hit. This was Ray following up one of his best outings of the season with one of his very worst outings of the season.
The only thing consistent about Robbie Ray during the first third of the season was his frustrating inconsistency. In one start he pitched 5 2⁄3 innings, striking out 11 and not allowing a run.
He followed this up with a mediocre outing, a good outing, and one of his worst outings of the season when he allowed five runs on eight hits and four walks in only 4 2⁄3 innings.
Over the next two months, Robbie Ray found remarkable consistency as a six-or-more-inning, three runs allowed pitcher. His ERA was higher than in the beginning of the season, but the expected contribution became something one could almost book without Ray even taking the mound. During that 10-game stretch, Ray only failed once to pitch at least six innings, going only four in an game against the Giants at the end of June. This 10-game stretch also included three games in which Ray posted a Game Score of 65 or higher, one of those the 71 score against St. Louis. During this 10-game stretch he still had one poor game and one very mediocre game. Still given the results, combined with the consistency, this was probably Ray’s best stretch of the season, despite having a higher ERA and batting average against compared to the first third of the season.
The final two months of the season were a return to inconsistency for Ray. Part of this might have been the result of a blister that bounced him from the game after only two innings of work against Colorado on August 14. The blister put Ray on the IL for 10 days, costing him essentially two starts, the one he skipped plus the remainder of the game he began before the blister appeared. The games on either side of the blister game were solid outings for Ray, the sort that extended the narrative of Ray having found his consistency at the beginning of June. Then, after the strong game in his return, his performance once again wavered back and forth to extremes.
This included the season-worst dud he threw against the Mets on September 11. Then, in his very next game on September 16, Ray pitched six innings of one-hit baseball in which he allowed only one run while striking out seven. This was one of his strongest overall performances of the year.
Ray followed up that outing with two consecutive 10-strikeout performances against the Padres, both of which were relatively average outings, given his inability to avoid walks.
Ray spent all of last winter and the first four months of the season under one of the biggest trade rumor clouds in recent memory. This led to all sorts of differences in opinion as to his value both as a trade chip and as a part of the Arizona rotation. Some felt that any trade made needed to hold out for a semi-elite return. After all, Ray still had another year of control and was a potential #2 left-handed strater. Others felt that Ray was one of the most over-rated of trade assets on the market; a five-and-dive pitcher whose high strikeout and walk rates regularly taxed a team’s bullpen. While the former is largely the result of people fondly remembering the dominant Ray of 2017 and holding out for an unlikely return of that pitcher, the latter is mostly the result of frustration with Ray’s high pitch counts. The truth likely fell somewhere in-between. While Ray still flashed signs of excellence, his walk rate and his inability to find regular consistency both kept him far from returning to his 2017 form. On the other hand though, it simply is not true that Ray was anything close to a five-and-dive pitcher, or that he put more stress on a bullpen than a typical starter. In fact, in 15 of his 33 starts, Ray went a full six or more innings. In 20 of his starts he recorded at least one out in the sixth inning. In only six of his starts did he fail to pitch at least five innings, this includes the game he left early due to a blister. The everage starter in 2019 pitched 5.16 innings per start. Ray averaged 5.28.
That was Robbie Ray in a nutshell in 2019. On one hand, Ray would show an infuriating inconsistency or lack of the extra something needed to be a good starting pitcher. This was mostly reflected in his high walk rate and slightly elevated hit rate, coupled by his inability to get quick strikeouts. On the other hand, Ray was league average or better in numerous categories that one would not expect, such as average length of outing, home run rate, FIP, xFIP, and of course his elite strikeout rate. As such, he provided plenty of talking points for his supporters and detractors alike.
Little has changed with regard to Ray. Another winter has brought another storm cloud of trade rumors. While the team has a fair number of pitchers who are potential starters for 2020, few of those starters come without questions regarding their ability to both stick in the rotation and to give the team at least average pitching. Does Mike Leake have one more season of smoke and mirrors in him? Can Zac Gallen continue to defy his peripherals? Which is the real Merrill Kelly? Outside of Ray, those are the only three pitchers on the staff that should reasonably be expected to provide 150 or more innings. That makes trading Ray a riskier and tougher proposition than it first appears. While this writer thinks there is a good chance Ray is traded in the next six weeks, that “good chance” is much like the chance for rain falling in Tempe being a “good chance” when the forecast calls for a 40% chance of scattered light showers. Much of Ray’s future with the team will be determined by what other pitching the team can acquire and what sort of return other teams are offering for the left-hander.
One thing should stand out as a certainty. Mike Hazen has zero incentive to accept a low offer. A healthy Robbie Ray will give 30+ starts and 160+ innings of league average pitching. If he simply repeats 2018 and 2019 in the 2020 season, he’ll be in line to receive a qualifying offer from the Diamondbacks. At the very least, Hazen needs to get back a player that will exceed the value of the compensation draft pick and the associated draft pool money. This means he likely needs to target MLB-ready players, most likely an outfielder or possibly a second baseman. If no one is meeting that sort of demand, expect Hazen to either wait until the deadline or to simply take the draft pick in lieu of making a trade at all.
Should Ray avoid being traded, he is in line to headline Arizona’s starting rotation for 2020. While Luke Weaver may have better stuff or Mike Leake have a better ability to eat innings, Robbie Ray has the best current mix of stuff and ability to eat innings, especially since Weaver’s 2020 will be rather limited in workload. While it still seems likely that the team will acquire more pitching this winter, it is unlikely that the pitching will be better than what Ray provides, unless Mike Hazen constructs some sort of blockbuster deal.