AL WestAnalysis

The Curious Case of Robbie Ray

In 2020, a young Toronto Blue Jays squad snuck into the expanded postseason led by up and coming stars Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and a pitching staff anchored by Cy Young finalist Hyun-jin Ryu. Lost in the shuffle was a trade acquisition from the Arizona Diamondbacks at the trade deadline, former All-Star Robbie Ray. To say it was a rough season for Ray would be an understatement. Despite being traded from a National League team to one in the American League, Ray still led the National League in walks. Entering that offseason, the Toronto Blue Jays gave Ray a one year, $8 million contract, essentially as a prove it deal, to help fill out their pitching staff.

In his lone full season with the Blue Jays, Ray posted the best season of his career. Walks had always been an issue of his, but in 2021 he had the lowest BB/9 of his career at 2.4. Not only did he limit the number of walks, but he led the American League in starts, innings pitched, ERA, and WHIP, and led the majors in strikeouts. Another notable accomplishment during the season for Ray was reaching 1000 IP, thus becoming eligible for the all-time K/9 leaderboard. Once he reached the innings threshold, Ray became the all-time leader in strikeouts per nine innings with 11.2. Even though the Blue Jays missed the playoffs, Ray was rewarded with the American League Cy Young award and a 5 year, $115 million contract from the Seattle Mariners in free agency.

The Mariners paid Ray to be a frontline starter as their rebuild came to a close and the push towards World Series contention began, but he has struggled throughout the season for his new team. Through 10 starts this season, Ray’s ERA is over two runs higher (2.84 to 4.93), he is striking out one less batter per nine innings (11.5 to 10.1), and given up the most earned runs in the major leagues. What happened to Robbie Ray, and should the Mariners be concerned about the early returns of this contract?

Before winning the Cy Young in Toronto, Ray had enjoyed some moderate success pitching in the desert for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2017, he sported a 2.89 ERA and was chosen to represent his team at the midsummer classic in Miami. A major factor in Ray’s success that season was his ability to strikeout batters, as he punched out a league-leading 12.1 batters per nine innings. That season would also see the Diamondbacks make the playoffs for the first time since 2011 before gettting swept in the NLDS by the Dodgers, and Ray finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting.

However, looking under the surface, Ray’s season was not as impressive as the basic stats indicate. While he did have a sub-3 ERA and led the league in strikeouts per 9 innings, Ray was in the bottom 5th percentile in both Hard Hit% and average Exit Velocity. Another issue was the amount of walks he gave up, as he was in the bottom 20th percentile in BB%. This all contributed to Ray’s FIP of 3.72, which was good but not elite like his ERA. His expected ERA was higher at 3.76, suggesting that there was some luck involved in the results. Ultimately, Ray was a good but not great pitcher in 2017, worthy of an All-Star selection, and looked like he would be a star for years to come.

After 2017, the walks became a major issue for the lefty, as in 2018 his BB/9 increased from 3.9 to 5.1 and his walk rate jumped from 10.7% to 13.3%. In 2019 there was a slight decrease in both numbers, but 2020 was the peak of the walk issues for Ray. As previously mentioned, he led the National League in free passes despite being traded to an American League team mid-season. The strikeout rate remained a constant, but from 2018-2020 he posted a 5.1 BB/9 and 13.1% walk rate, both the worst in the major leagues in that span.

Now that we have an understanding of the issues that plagued Ray before his Cy Young season, it is time to analyze what has gone wrong for the southpaw this season. An article entitled “One bad inning plagues Robbie Ray again as Trevor Story continues to torment the Mariners at Fenway Park” started to break down Ray’s season. The article argues that Ray has mostly struggled when it comes to limiting damage in outings, something that Ray did not struggle with in Toronto last season.

In his 32 starts for the Blue Jays in 2021, Ray gave up three or more runs in 11 starts. Out of those 11 starts, only 5 of them had featured a “bad inning” (3+ ER in a frame). In 11 starts this year, Ray has given up three or more runs in 7 starts, and in those seven starts, six of them have had those bad innings. The catalyst for this change can be seen with how Ray pitches with runners in scoring position.

The major league leader in Left On Base percentage in 2021 was Ray, stranding runners at a 90.1% clip. When men were on, Ray held opposing hitters to a .181/.236/.327 slashline and .563 OPS, 51% below the league average. With runners in scoring position, Ray became even better with a .161/.220/.314 slashline and .534 OPS, 59% below league average. So far this year, Ray is stranding only 70% of runners. With men on this year, hitters are slashing an improved .219/.296/.448 with a .744 OPS, 1% higher than league average. With runners in scoring position, that slashline increases to .231/.305/.500 for an .805 OPS, 14% worse than league average.

Ray has been worse with runners on, regressing to his career averages after being one of the best pitchers with men on in 2021, and that is the main reason he is struggling this year. However, a major factor with Ray’s decline in producton has been with his pitches themselves. In his Cy Young season, Ray primarily threw a four seam fastball and slider, using those two pitches 90.1% of the time (per BaseballSavant) and accounted for over 95% of his punchouts. The average velocity on the fastball was 94.6 mph, and 88.4 mph on the slider. This season, while Ray is using both pitches at a similar rate, he is striking out less batters. The velocity has dropped on both the fastball and slider, and this has been the main contribution to Ray’s drop in strikeouts. The walks have not been an issue unlike in the past, but rather it has been losing a tick on both his primary pitches.

We know what has happened to Ray’s ERA and strikeout rate, so now we must ask if the Mariners should be concerned about him long term. The peripherals surrounding his Cy Young season (3.60 xERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.36 xFIP) suggested that Ray would regress slightly when joining Seattle. While he has struggled this year, Ray’s peripherals suggest that he has been slightly unlucky (4.02 xERA, 4.26 FIP, 3.67 xFIP). Seattle’s concerns should not lie within his performance but with his stuff. Losing a tick on both the fastball and slider in year 1 of a five year deal does not bode well for Ray, especially as he is now in his age 30 season. Maybe the lack of a proper Spring Training has messed with his velocity and it will get better as the season goes on, but for a team looking to break a playoff drought spanning multiple decades, this deal has the possibility to be an anchor for the Mariners for the foreseeable future.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, BaseballSavant, and the Seattle Times

Image courtesy of the Seattle Times (Michael Dwyer/AP)

James Darschewski

James Darschewski is an undergraduate student at Purdue University who is the self-appointed "Power Rankings Czar". You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @jwdblue42.

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