Learning to Sink- The Improvements of Robbie Ray

In the 2021 season, everything clicked for Robbie Ray. He landed on a one year deal worth $8M with the Toronto Blue Jays. For Ray, it was a “prove-it” year. He was a decent starter early in his career, spending time on the Tigers and the Diamondbacks before making his way to Toronto. But, he was never an ace-caliber pitcher, and certainly never put up a season like he did last season. When he got to Toronto, his pants got tighter, his slider got nastier, and his four-seam fastball became much more effective. He went on to strike out an MLB-best 248 hitters, while also leading the American League in innings pitched (193.1), WHIP (1.05), and ERA+ (157). All of the concerns that were associated with him as a pitcher in the past diminished quickly. He cut his BB rate from 17.9% in 2020, a number that was in the bottom 2% of the league, down to 6.7% in 2021, a number below league average. He also had a K rate in the top 7% of the league, striking out 32.1% of the batters that he faced. Ray had always been a pitcher that sported a high K rate, but his BB rate usually followed suit, finding himself above league average year after year. But, in 2021, that K rate was able to stay high while walking significantly fewer batters. It was nearly a picture perfect year for the left hander, pitching his way to an undisputed Cy Young Award and earning himself a large payday when he hit free agency last winter.

For Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners, this was an offseason that was promised to be significant. Dipoto went on record stating that after an improbable 90 win season in 2021, it was time for this young Mariners core to add solidified talent via free agency. Who better to add then the Cy Young Award winner from the year prior? Dipoto did just that, signing Ray to a 5 year, $115M contract in November of 2021. It was the Mariners first big splash in free agency in quite some time, and it signaled that Dipoto was serious about contending, and contending with an ace like Ray atop their rotation. Sure, this was excellent news for Dipoto and Mariners fans alike, but due to Ray’s history and the history of the Mariners’ attempts to scratch the playoffs, there was a large majority of fans that were skeptical. Of course, if Ray got even close to repeating his 2021 campaign, those skeptics would quickly dissipate. But, unfortunately for Ray and Mariners fans, his 2022 season got off to a rough start.

In Ray’s first 12 starts as a Seattle Mariner, he went 5-6 with a 4.97 ERA, a 4.76 FIP, a .132 WHIP, a 25.8% K rate, and a 9.1% BB rate, while opposing batters had a .245 BA against him. He was struck with a bit of bad luck, as he had to pitch in Minnesota at the start of a frigid spring and in a near hurricane in Chicago against the White Sox. Ray was not wavering from his bulldog mentality, as he was consistently throwing 100+ pitches in almost every outing, no matter how well he was pitching. He was pitching with incredible effort, but he and the Mariners were not seeing the type of outcomes they were hoping they would from the reigning Cy Young winner. He was often outstanding for the majority of his outings, but found himself having one bad inning start after start. These bad innings were often capped with at least one homerun, often surrendering multiple longballs in a single inning. He had a 1.78 HR/9 in those first twelve starts, with many of those homeruns ruining certain starts for him. So, what has changed for Ray, and how has he turned it around so quickly?

Paired with the fact that he has been facing much less talented lineups as of late, Ray has been magnificent with his newly reintroduced and revived two-seam fastball. In his Cy Young season, Ray essentially relied on only two pitches, his electric four-seam fastball and his hard, wipeout slider. It’s unusual for a starting pitcher to rely on solely two pitches, but Ray did just that, and he did it very well. But, when you limit your arsenal, it becomes much easier for opposing hitters to eliminate one pitch or the other. So, when Ray struggled at the beginning of this season, it wasn’t surprising that he chose to add another pitch to the mix, keeping hitters more off-balanced than before. Since June 6th, Ray’s pitch distribution is as follows, 177 two-seam fastballs, 163 sliders, and 133 four-seam fastballs. To put those numbers in perspective, he threw only FIVE sinkers in his entire 2021 campaign. He has been a more versatile, more balanced pitcher these past few starts.

Lucky for Ray, this wasn’t a pitch that he had to learn in the middle of the season. He had used this sinker in years prior, most heavily when he threw 581 sinkers in 2015 and 778 sinkers in 2016, per Baseball Savant. The first benefit that Ray gains from incorporating the sinker is that it keeps hitters on the ground more often, which results in fewer homers given up. Although T-Mobile Park is regarded around the league as a pitcher’s ballpark, Ray was giving up too many homers in too important of spots. So, interestingly enough, those two years mentioned above were the two years in which Ray posted his highest groundball rates of his career thus far (45.3% and 46.8%, respectively). In his last four starts, Ray’s groundball percentage has been a much higher, much improved 46.8% as opposed to 36.1% over his first 12 starts.

The addition of a sinker often can mean a slight downtick in velocity for many pitchers. They often will sacrifice a little bit of velocity for much greater movement and deception. But for Ray, who has already been dealing with a four-seamer that is about 1.0 MPH slower than last year’s, it was important to try to maintain velocity while adding a new dimension to his arsenal. He has been able to do just that. Since adding the pitch, his average sinker velocity has been 93.0 while his average four-seam fastball velocity has been 93.1.

The ability to maintain velocity between the two pitches gives him a lethal tunneling ability that is so important for major league pitchers. For those of you not familiar, “tunneling” is when a pitcher throws two different pitches in similar locations but with different movement, resulting in the pitch looking exactly the same to the hitter until it’s too late to realize that the “break” on the two pitches are different. Especially against right handed opponents, Ray was having difficulty keeping them off balance. The movement of the sinker paired with the ride that Ray gets on his four-seam fastball makes it increasingly difficulty for them to barrel him up. Although the two pitches are similar in velocity, the movement of the two are very different. His sinker has averaged 15.5 inches of horizontal break and 19.4 inches of drop, while his four-seamer averages 6.6 inches of horizontal break and 13.6 inches of drop. This has resulted in much weaker contact being made against Ray. Over his last four starts, Ray has posted a 25.8% hard hit rate, while the league average is 38.5%. He has given up a mere 3 “barrels” in those starts, resulting in a 4.8% barrel percentage as opposed to a 9.4% barrel percentage in his first twelve. Additionally, Ray hasn’t allowed a single home run since June 6th.

Since June 6th, Robbie Ray has struck out 28 hitters in 27.0 IP, posting a 0.67 ERA, a 2.16 FIP, a .122 BAA, a 28% K rate, and a 7% BB rate. Per Mariners PR, he’s the first Mariners pitchers to record 28+ strikeouts while allowing no more than 2 runs over a 4-game span since Felix Hernandez from July 13-Aug. 1, 2013. Ray has regained some of the magic that we saw all of the 2021 season. But, surprisingly enough, it has been in a much different way, adding finesse to his violent, relentless pitching style. The sudden change that Ray has been able to implement in the middle of a long season speaks volumes to his awareness as a pitcher and as a professional. The Mariners put a lot of faith into the 30-year-old left hander, and this change has shown Mariners fans why Jerry Dipoto signed Ray to the contract that he did. Ray is a bulldog that needs to pitch like an ace for the Mariners to be successful. They currently find themselves clawing their way forward in a tough American League, and if they want to turn their season around and contend like Dipoto and the front office has promised, Ray must continue pitching like he has recently. The sinker is very effective, and hopefully for the Mariners and this pitching staff, it’s here to stay.

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William Gross

William Gross is a college student and baseball player from the great state of Washington. He is an Exercise Science major and a Business minor. He has 15+ years of baseball playing experience, and enjoys talking and writing about anything pertaining to the game, especially the Seattle Mariners. Hope you enjoy! Twitter: w_gross7

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