Robbie Ray has tantalizing stuff and at times looks like he is about to break out and become a frontline ace starter. However his tendency to walk batters and run up his pitch counts is well documented , and oft discussed.
While the exact time table isn’t known, decisions are looming for the Diamondbacks front office. What to do with their enigmatic left hander ? What follows is an exercise where I will present the case for one of three possible choices the team will make, and then you the readers will make the choice.
Extend him soon, before he gets too close to free agency
Trade him soon, before dwindling years of control diminish his trade value
Hold, and wait and see how he develops further through the end of this year before making a decision.
Before delving into the specific cases however, here is a chart showing how Ray compares to some other left handed starters through similar points in their career. These are not age based comparisons, but rather through a similar number of innings pitched to start their careers. They are not meant to be predictive, or perfect comps. They are just guys I chose because they had similar profiles. Left Handed starters that had terrific stuff, but hadn’t yet harnessed it through their first 600+ innings in MLB. The divergence of paths for this group of pitchers is somewhat obvious.
A few things to note here:
ERA+ is league adjusted ERA, set to scale of 100. 100 = average. An ERA+ of 150-200 is usually going to lead the league, and an ERA+ below 80-85 will get you a ticket to DFA land.
K+ is league adjusted K/9. 100 = league avg, As you can see, the explosion of K’s in the modern game makes it important to contextualize strikeout rates. While Ray has the highest K/9 in this table, once you adjust for league, he is roughly 32% higher than the league average, but actually has the lowest K+ on this list
WAA is Wins Above Average, which is different from Wins Above Replacement. Generally a 1.5-2.5 WAR for a starting pitcher is equivalent to league average depending on the era being looked at. WAA and WAR are counting stats in a sense. Starters go fewer innings these days, so you also have to look at context.
So what you see in this table is a pretty wide swath of possible outcomes. They were all somewhat similar in both profile and results through their first 600+ IP. Two of them went on to have Hall of Fame careers, and two of them pretty much washed out as starters. (If you click on report link above you can find links to individual players and see their career arcs beyond the period highlighted here)
The Case for an Extension:
Robbie Ray , despite his challenges to get deeper in games, is already an above league average starter right now who provides good value to the team during his arbitration years. While we are left wanting for more at times, it’s important to note that he has been contributing well above his “pay grade” as it is. Currently making 6 Million, he’ll probably get bumped anywhere from 8M to 10M next year in his final year of arbitration before becoming eligible for free agency following the 2020 season. He will head into free agency in 2021 at the relatively young age of 29
His 3 year ZIPS Projection for 2019-2021 has him producing nearly 7 WAR, which is estimated to be worth roughly 50-60 Million on the open market. Since the first two years of that period are already within the control period for the DBacks at 14-16 Million we have to take that into account. So what might an extension look like ?
If they do it now, before he has a Corbin like breakout season, they may be able to get a bit of a discount. But I don’t think Robbie would give up too much. I’m sure he has his eye on what Patrick got, (6 years, 140M from the Nationals).
I believe the starting point for a Ray extension looks something like this:
2020 bumped to 12M
2021-2025 20 Million avg annual, = 100M
8M signing bonus, prorated over life of contract.
Total. 6 years, covering 2020-2025, 120M, or avg annual 20M per year.
This is more or less the starting point. Any less than that, and talk of extending him would be moot. He’d be unlikely to sign a lesser deal. And if he manages to put up a 180-200 inning season producing 5+ WAR like Patrick did last year, then the market price is probably at least what Corbin got if not higher. Remember Robbie already had a 5 WAR season in 2017 in just 162 innings. If he equals or surpasses that over the next two seasons, his price tag will be much higher.
The Case for a Trade
If the team is a seller at this year’s July trade deadline, this is the last chance for the Diamondbacks to receive a good package for Ray. With his stuff and raw ability, there is always a team out there that will think they can fix him. And teams that are in contention mid season are often willing to pay more for pitching than they do for hitting.
That said, Ray is trending in all the wrong directions in the quest to get him deeper in games as can be seen from the key indicators below. These are the things that drive up pitch counts and result in more walks and shorter outings.
Simply put, since becoming a Diamondback , Ray has not improved at all in his ability to throw strikes, get ahead in counts, reduce walks, and get deeper into games. In fact, he has gotten worse over the last 2 seasons. One can speculate whether or not this is a problem with the DBacks coaching staff being unable to help him improve. However, Robbie’s own words need to be seriously considered , (as quoted and discussed in comments section in the 4/16 Snakebytes)
“I’m a max-effort pitcher,” he said. “I throw every pitch as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve never been a guy who can sit there and sink the ball and cut the ball, change up. I’ve never been a finesse guy. “Maybe way later in my career that’s something I’ll have to dabble in.”
Based on his very own words, we simply should not expect change any time soon, and by the time he “gets it”, his stuff will be diminished or he will be well within the pitcher injury nexus.
Nobody is making trades in April or even May. But if the DBacks find themselves in a “sell position” as the July trade deadline approaches, they should get the best package they can for Robbie and move on.
The Case to Hold
Even if the DBacks are in a sell position at the trade deadline, they should not trade Ray. (Obviously if team is in contention July 31 there is no way they trade him anyway) There is nothing to be lost by letting it play out through his final 2 arbitration years. The team could very well be competitive in 2020 as some of their minor league youth starts to arrive and contribute more to the major league roster. The Dbacks also need to be careful of a fan base already dissatisfied after the recent off season losses of Paul Goldschmidt, AJ Pollock and Corbin.
The worst case scenario for the Dbacks if they hold on to Ray is they still get positive value over the next 1.5 seasons, (July 2019 to end of 2020). Even if he only reaches the ZIPS projections and totals 4.5 WAR for 2019-2020, that’s worth 35-40 Million on Free Agent market, and he’ll be paid 14-16 Million. So plenty of marginal value there even if he never improves. And if he has a very good year in 2020, putting him in line for the Corbin deal, the team can always make him a one year qualifying offer of 20M for the 2021 season. If he rejects it and signs elsewhere, the Dbacks will get a compensation draft pick to continue feeding their improving minor league system.
You can see the possibilities with Ray when you look at Players like Sandy Koufax and Randy Johnson. You just can’t give up on that type of upside lightly. Be patient, at least give it another 1-2 years. You never know what will happen.
I would like to end this post by saying that these are good choices for a team to have. Robbie Ray is a solid person and teammate, and he always gives his all in every outing. He is supremely talented, and has provided some fantastic moments, and overall good value for the team. But baseball is a business, and these are the types of choices the team faces.
So, what say you, the readers ? Below is a poll to make your choice. Now take a deep breath, don’t let last night’s outing influence you too much. (I’ve been thinking about this article since his previous outing, and the issue in general since the off season) Look at the bigger picture. Please add to the cases presented above in the comments section in support of your poll choice.
ROBBIE RAY: EXTEND, TRADE, OR HOLD
This poll is closed