Free Agent Evaluation: Robbie Ray
Photo Credit: @ROBBIERAY Twitter
Robbie Ray was one of Major League Baseball’s breakout stars in 2021. Always an immensely talented pitcher, Ray was best known as a guy who struck out batters at an elite rate, but lacked the fastball command and enough general control to be a top-of-the-rotation arm. Despite the fact that his bottom-line numbers rarely matched his obvious stuff, Ray had consistently been a popular target discussed at the trade deadline. At the 2020 trade deadline, the Toronto Blue Jays finally took the plunge, matching the Arizona Diamondbacks’ asking price. What followed was a 2021 season that even the most optimistic Robbie Ray fans likely didn’t see coming: 193.1 innings pitched over 32 starts, 248 strikeouts, 2.84 ERA, just a 6.7% walk rate, 7 hits/9 innings, and 6.7 bWAR/3.9 fWAR, all in the pressure-packed AL East. In his final season prior to Free Agency, Robbie Ray finally put all the pieces together.
In reality, it’s too early to put together a Free Agent wish list for the Yankees, but a conversation in the SSTN Comments Section got me thinking about Robbie Ray’s future. Someone is likely to give Ray a big contract this offseason, once the CBA situation resolves itself. Someone will convince themselves that Robbie Ray has permanently turned a corner and pay him like something approaching an ace. That someone could even be the Yankees. After all, the Yankees were always among the teams connected to Ray at the trade deadline in 2018 and 2019, and we have pretty good information saying that the Yankees were close to a deal in 2019 until Cashman balked at including Clint Frazier as part of the trade package, among others. It is plausible to believe that Ray could find himself in pinstripes when the 2022 season kicks off.
I’m going to avoid a conversation about contract numbers for now, but I’m far more interested in answering some critical questions. Why was Robbie Ray successful in 2021? Were there any underlying reasons why Robbie Ray’s performance improved so markedly? The answers to these questions are crucial to evaluating whether or not Ray is a worthwhile Free Agent target for 2022.
Dissecting The Numbers
Before we talk about anything else, we need to talk about the dramatic dive Robbie Ray’s walk rate took in 2021. Prior to the 2021 season, Ray had not posted a walk rate in the single digit since his 9.2% mark in his second full season in the Majors. Let’s just say that it had been all downhill from there, and Ray bottomed out with a shocking 20.1% walk rate with Arizona in the first half of last year’s shortened season. For reference, there are pitchers who struggle to post 20% strikeout rates. A 20% walk rate is almost historically bad. That combined with his poor run prevention stats made 2021 a critical season for Ray. As a pending Free Agent, it’s hard to imagine a team taking a flier on a veteran with multiple years of poor run prevention and sky-high walk rates, no matter what the strikeout rates look like.
Well, Ray went the other way: he posted the best walk rate of his career, 6.7%, which was actually significantly beneath the league average. That is quite simply a mind-boggling turnaround. Frankly, I can’t think of a veteran starting pitcher who has made such a stunning reversal of fortune with regards to control so late in his career. How did that manifest itself? Check out Ray’s zone rates below:
Robbie Ray Zone Rates, Courtesy of Statcast
Year-over-year, Ray’s zone rates with his fastball had steadily declined throughout his big league career. While his breaking balls found the strike zone with better frequency, Ray’s ability to establish his strong fastball in the strike zone was the biggest factor in his improvement in the control department.
Ray’s consistent ability to challenge hitters with his fastball had a direct impact on his ability to make hitters swing and miss. While Ray’s stuff was always well above-average, hitters aren’t going to swing if the chances are high that a pitch won’t be in the strike zone. With the substantial increase in Ray’s fastball zone rate, we see a concurrent increase in hitters’ swing and miss rate against both Ray’s fastball and change-up:
Robbie Ray Swing and Miss Rate, Courtesy of Statcast
From the above chart, you can also see that Ray’s change-up, little used before 2020, saw a similar increase in swing and miss rate to his fastball. This makes sense, as the change-up is played directly off of the fastball. The more hitters have to be ready to hit a fastball in the strike zone, the more susceptible the hitter is to a change-up.
More specifically, Ray’s command inside the strike zone was better with both the fastball and the slider, as Ray busted righties inside with the fastball while planting the slider low and away. This led to a drastically better groundball rate in 2021, as seen below:
Robbie Ray Groundball Rates, Courtesy of Statcast
From statistics alone, we can see that Ray was a very different pitcher in 2021 than in years’ past, and the results responded in kind. However, that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not we can expect this performance to continue moving forward. Is Ray just a flash in the pan, or can he be counted on when he inevitably gets a long-term deal?
Major Mechanical Changes
One of the jobs the best baseball organizations undertake is blending analytics, scouting, and coaching to evaluate players’ strengths and weaknesses, determine the underlying reasons for those attributes, create an action plan for continual improvement without sacrificing strengths, and communicating that plan effectively such that changes are made to benefit both the players and the team. I wanted to know if the Jays and Robbie Ray were able to accomplish the aforementioned synergy in such a way that positive change could be lasting.
Two factors gave me a very real indication that there was something more behind Ray’s improvement than just numbers. The graph below summarizes the first hint I found:
Robbie Ray Extension, Courtesy of Statcast
Ray’s extension out in front of the pitching rubber at the point of pitch release increased noticeably between 2019 and 2021. We know that extension helps pitches appear faster to a hitter, giving the pitch more “jump,” but changes in extension don’t just happen naturally. Generally, it takes some conscious mechanical changes to affect any noticeable improvement to extension. My interest was piqued when I saw the raw numbers, but the graph above shows the trend definitively.
When extension changes, naturally it means that the arm is releasing the ball differently, and possibly in a different place. I compared Ray’s release points between 2019 and 2021:
Robbie Ray Release Points 2019 vs. 2021 (Click To Enlarge)
Two things should be immediately clear in the above comparison (2019 on the left, 2021 on the right). First, Ray’s release point has dropped by a couple of inches on average, but even more so for his curveball. A lower release point makes sense now that Ray is releasing the ball further down the mound. More importantly though, the release points are significantly tighter in 2021, which helps hide pitches better and effectively “tunnels” pitches, forcing hitters to play a guessing game. This is definitive proof that some major changes were afoot in Ray’s delivery.
So, I looked for video of Ray pitching out of the wind-up in both 2019 and 2021. The mechanical differences between the two years are stark, even from the broadcast angle. I have isolated two images from the same delivery in both years to illustrate the most obvious mechanical changes.
Let’s start with the top of the leg kick. Ray has maintained a high leg kick, finishing just under his right armpit. Below is an example of that kick in May 2019:
Robbie Ray Start May 2019
Now, check out the top of the leg kick in September 2021:
Robbie Ray Start September 2021
The difference is obvious. Ray gets significantly more hip rotation in 2021 versus 2019. In 2019, we can see the opening of Ray’s mitt from centerfield and his head remains fixed on the catcher behind home plate. In 2021, Ray’s hips are rotated such that his back is almost facing home plate, his mitt (the opening of which is now facing third base) is completely hidden by his body, and Ray turns his head completely away from home plate.
While it may seem odd that Ray doesn’t even look at the catcher, his body is now completely balanced and coiled at the top of his delivery, something I would not argue about his delivery in 2019. The top of Ray’s delivery is more mechanically sound in 2021, and it sets up the improvement se see just prior to release in the next screenshots. First, here’s Ray’s stride in 2019:
Robbie Ray Start 2019
And now Ray’s stride in 2021:
Robbie Ray Start 2021
Ray’s stride leg is completely straightened in 2021, as opposed to 2019 when it was bent. Ray maintains good hip rotation in 2021, as opposed to 2019 when his hips were far less closed to the plate, forcing his arm to do more of the work to locate the pitch. With a straight stride leg, Ray gets more extension down the mound, but with more load in his lower half, Ray’s lower half now helps guide his arm into the slot with greater consistency. A more consistent arm slot certainly means that Ray is better able to gain feel with all of his pitches, will almost definitely increase both control and command over time.
Sometimes, luck and sample size can create statistical volatility, but in Ray’s case, there are really significant mechanical modifications that have been made to affect statistical change. Mechanical changes gave Ray more extension and a more consistent arm slot, which are making him more difficult to hit and enabling him to gain feel, control, and command with all of his pitches. Assuming the mechanical changes stick over the long haul, then I would expect that the statistical improvements Ray made in 2021 are far less fluky than they appear.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
That’s not to say that I don’t have concerns about Ray. Over the course of an offseason, it’s possible that Ray’s mechanics could regress to previous patterns, which would almost certainly lead to some of his statistical improvements backsliding. Even if the mechanics stick, it should be noted that Ray’s Left-On-Base Percentage was a nearly unfathomable 90.1% in 2021, which means Ray is due for at least some statistical regression in the run prevention department. This is a large reason for the difference between Ray’s bWAR and fWAR in 2021. Fangraphs (I think correctly) recognizes the luck involved in stranding such a high percentage of runners.
Standard regression to the mean in this situation means that Ray is merely very good as opposed to a Cy Young candidate. It’s an even worse situation if the mechanical changes don’t stick after an offseason.
I don’t think I gave Ray enough credit this year. I was very skeptical of his performance, and I even noted that skepticism as recently as yesterday in the SSTN Comments section. I think my hesitance was misplaced. The statistics and scouting agree in this scenario, and Ray is a genuinely improved pitcher. I would not expect Ray to repeat this year’s performance year after year over a long-term deal, but I do think that he can be a quality 2nd or 3rd pitcher on a pitching staff with World Series aspirations. For all of the Yankees’ flaws in 2021, they were still a 92-win team. A pitcher like Ray and some reinforcement on the offensive side of the coin would be a very interesting proposition.
In short, while Ray should not be paid like a Cy Young candidate this Winter, a team that expects him to perform like Robin or Alfred to Batman should be satisfied with acquiring Ray for the next couple of seasons at least.