Ray of Hope: Rebuilding Robbie Ray

Can a fastball rebuild a damaged career?

All right, let’s start this out with a level of rhyming that would impress even Yaslin Bey: Robbie Ray, the modern Blue Jay, tossed his walks away, and finished with the day, with a stunning 9K. Woot! If anybody wants me on the middle-age crisis white rapper show, I’m available as long as you give me my own private trailer. None of this shared trailer nonsense in the age of COVID!

What brings me to talk about the most-tight-pantsed player in the Majors — except for maybe Pablo Sandoval on a Monday afternoon after a Sunday off-day spent cruising the food trucks — is the fact that our fearless leader at Pitcher List, Nick Pollack, had the following to say about Robbie Ray this week, and I quote:

Robbie Ray finally pumped fastballs in the zone for a start and walked away with nine strikeouts and zero walks. I truly hope it’s something that sticks.

Nick Pollack, lister of pitchers

Now, I know all of you readers [waves hand around all six of you] are absolutely dying to know: where’s the tension? What’s the rising action going on here? Do we have to wait through 16 Chevy Truck commercials before we get to the denouement? No, no you need not do that. For, here is where I proclaim myself the Nemesis of Nick, the Problematic of Pollack. For I, dear reader, am…the Other Lister of Pitchers.

OK, drama aside, but I really am the pitching ranker and weekend editor over at Razzball, and when Nick brought me on to write here, we kind of had this gentleman’s agreement that we’d politely keep in our respective pitching lanes. But then — then! — Nick had the audacity to praise Robbie Ray‘s fastball. “I truly hope it’s something that sticks,” he said. Nick, what are you alluding to? Are you accusing Robbie Ray of using (gasp) pine tar? Or sunscreen and Cheeto dust? Those words, they raised my Ray-dar (you knew that was coming) and got me to thinking: “Blair, it’s time you brought your Ray gun to the fight,” which is my super-soaker that I got signed by Robbie Ray when I was at a summer camp sponsored by Zac Gallen‘s hairstylist.

So, readers who are still with me (Hey Nick!), let’s deep dive Robbie Ray and see if he should be in your good gRAYces (got another one in!) or if he’s a flash in the pan. Also, while I’m at it, I should mention that after this week, I’m transitioning to do the “Storylines to Follow” weekly article, and I’ll be carrying this writing tone with me towards that series. If you like my style, come visit me on Sundays going forward, where I’ll be like sarcastic Jeff Zimmerman, mining your news and making diamonds out of coal for you.

 

The Reclamation Project

 

Now, one doesn’t simply stumble into Robbie Ray fandom, other than perhaps switching to the Jays game after watching Bridgerton and finding Ray pitching out of the wind-up. Is it steamy in here? This whole enthusiasm of mine began this past winter when a commenter on Razzball asked me to do a spotlight on Robbie Ray, the results of which are here. Let’s summarize The Robbie Ray Retrospective for you quickly: Ray was an intriguing prospect drafted by the Washington Nationals, traded to the Detroit Tigers, and then dumped into the lap of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

As a prospect, scouts like John Sickels noted that his fastball widely varied from the high-80s to the mid-90s in terms of velocity, often due to inconsistent mechanics. But, his fastball wasn’t really his thrilling pitch — that was his slider — and so he continued into MLB from 2015-2017 getting more consistent with his fastball before buckling knees with his slider. If this was Pitching Ninja’s channel, I’d say something like, “Sets him up with the wakizashi inside and then guts him with the katana.” Now you don’t know whether the italics represent Japanese or emphasis! I’ll quote myself to give you an idea of just how good Robbie Ray was from age 23-25:

From 2015-2017, Ray had the same cumulative WAR as 2016 NL Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello. Ray’s K/9 rate was the 5th best in the league during this period, just behind Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg, and ahead of Corey Kluber and Noah Syndergaard. Ray was known for having some walk troubles, but his walk rate was tolerable. In fact, Ray gave up fewer walks per nine innings than similarly qualified starters like Edinson Volquez, James Shields, and Ubaldo Jimenez. Meanwhile, Ray limited the damage done when batters made contact, giving up as many home runs per nine innings as Matt HarveyMax Scherzer, and Justin Verlander.

Blair Williams, lister of pitchers and Japanese historian-turned-blogger

So what happened to our boo who was so young, so comparable to legendary names, and so thoroughly overlooked by the masses? Well, in 2017, Luke Voit barreled a line drive into Robbie Ray‘s skull, giving the young pitcher a concussion to the point where Ray claimed he felt the presence of God guiding him to safety as he collapsed to the ground. Although Ray finished the 2017 season after a convalescence, the effects of the concussion clearly bothered him for the next few years.

In 2018, his BB/9 skyrocketed to over 5.00. Batters started parking his fastballs, with the slugging against his fastball rising from .432 in 2018 to .632 in 2020. Although his slider regularly had 30%+ K% — including two years in the mid-40% range — Ray struggled with control and home runs. From 2019-2020, he allowed over 5 BB/9 and an average of 1.71 HR/9. In other words, in a hypothetical 6IP start, Ray was practically guaranteed to walk 3 batters and allow a home run, so at the very least, his team would almost always need to produce between 1 to 4 runs just to match Ray’s average start. Blech. In 2021, Ray was jettisoned from the Diamondbacks to the Blue Jays in return for a troubled reliever, and the Blue Jays began the project of reclaiming Robbie Ray.

 

Reborn or Reformed?

 

In the shortened 2020 season, Robbie Ray finished the season with the Toronto/Buffalo Blue Jays, walking 6 batters per 9 and piling up a lethargic 5.32 FIP over 20 innings. Mostly, the problem in 2020 was his fastball: with a nearly .300 batting average against, a .400 xwOBA against, and a swinging strike rate of 6.2%, Ray was basically pitching to contact on that pitch. But, he looked to 2021 as a time to rebuild his career — keeping in mind he’s only 29 years young! — and he started the 2021 season rather unceremoniously by falling down the stairs and missing a start while on the IL. He made his debut on April 12 and continued in his typical rotation slot over the next three weeks, walking a bunch of batters per his usual but also making a really interesting — at least to us spreadsheet data readers — statistical anomaly among his career fastball numbers.

Suddenly, that fastball that was getting parked from 2018 onward, was — and I dare say this only in the company of those who understand small sample sizes — unhittable. On the 2021 season, Ray’s fastball is up 1 MPH to 95 MPH, has a .375 xSLG against and .307 xwOBA, and a 12.1% swinging-strike rate, good for nearly 30% improvement on his career average. OK, so it’s hittable, but we’re talking a nearly 50% improvement over his career norms. Now we’ve got the rising action, and I’m not talking about his fastball!

Then came the April 24th game against the Tampa Bay Rays, where Ray threw 6 innings with no walks and 9 strikeouts. His pitch mix in that game? 75% fastballs. That’s nearly 20% above his career average. Suddenly, the control was there. The K’s were there. Batters were swinging and missing, or making contact and doing no damage. For the pitcher that ranks in the top 5 in K/9 in recent years — and that’s Ray just so we’re clear — if he found a way to overcome his weakness in the walk and the home run, he could be unstoppable. In fact, in Ray’s 154 games started since 2015, he’s only had 12 comparable 0BB games, and in a lot of those games, he gave up significant runs. Uh-oh. Let’s check that April 24th game…[gasp]…Ray allowed two dingers, one off his slider, and one off his curveball. Oh, three readers and Nick, we’ve officially come to the part of the script where the hero loses everything. You might want to get some popcorn for this.

What brought Robbie Ray to the pinnacle of Mount K/9 over his career? In fact, it was his slider that carried him through the years, with a  career 21% swinging-strike rate, a career wOBA against of just .277, and a career wRC+ of 79. I mean, Weber sent their best and brightest grill scientists to study Robbie Ray‘s ability to smoke the competition. Yet, the pitch you’re not seeing nearly as much in 2021 is Robbie Ray‘s slider. In fact, in that April 24th game where Ray threw 75% fastballs, he threw a mere 11% sliders, or the 4th fewest sliders in his career since 2018. Did I mention Robbie Ray is tied for 30th in number of games started in that time period? We’re not talking about a small sample size here. We’re talking Ch-ch-changes (insert David Bowie GIF). There’s the possibility that Robbie Ray is, indeed, reborn. But in order to be reborn, the hero must first endure challenges.

 

The Fastball Foundation

 

So what about this glorious, stunning new fastball that we’ve seen? Can we march it out on parade like a debutante, with throngs of southern gentlemen holding a mint julip in their hands as they welcome the four-seamer into polite society? To my old eyes, the new fastball looks a lot like the old fastball. OK, there’s about 1 MPH more oomph into the 2021 version — kind of like it spent the off-season doing interval training — but much like 2021 in general, the spin rate is down. In fact, the 2021 fastball looks nearly identical to his 2017 fastball, the year when Robbie got hit in the head by a Luke Voit comebacker. The velocity? 95 MPH in 2021, and 94.2 MPH in 2017. The spin? 2272 RPM in 2021, 2276 in 2017. The vertical drop? 13.5 inches in 2021, 13.6 inches in 2017. Horizontal movement? 9.7 inches in 2021, 8.6 inches in 2017. The whiff %? 26.2% in 2021, and 25.3% in 2017. All right, alright, awright! We’ve found the change in the fastball! [insert training montage with Duran Duran’s “Reflex” as the soundtrack]

And this is exciting because, in 2017, Robbie Ray had a 22.1 K-BB%, a 3.53 SIERA, a 5.1 barrel%, and a 32.2 CSW%. Those, my friends, are true top 20 starting pitcher numbers. But wait, there’s more! In 2017, Robbie’s slider was devastating, with a 49.5% whiff rate and a .235 wOBA. Are we looking at the greatest comeback in MLB history? Robbie Ray is just 29, after all! Let’s plug in his 2021 sliders to see how he’s faring. Don’t worry folks, the article will be over in just a bit!  [clicks] Oh no…this isn’t good. His 2021 slider is [gasp] his worst pitch. The xSLG on his 2021 slider is .673, and the whiff% is down to 29%, which is the second-worst in his career; the worst was during his first year in the majors.

The Blue Jays rebuilt Ray’s fastball, but in making him into Superman, they took kryptonite to his best pitch — the slider which had made his career and kept him in the starting rotation even when post-concussion syndrome rocked his accuracy.

Moreover, it’s important to note that the Jays reverted Ray to his older-style windup. Last year, Mikey Ajeto covered Ray’s new pitching motion, pointing out that he had shortened his arm circle. This resulted in massive spin rates, which put his fastball spin in the 95th percentile of all starting pitchers. It also had the result of turning his sinker — a pitch which he threw only 10% of the time — into a hyper-controlled pitch that batters couldn’t do anything with. This is why I argued in the off-season that Ray should pull a Corbin Burnes: by ditching the fastball that batters parked and replacing it with a sinker that was safe and controllable, Ray could potentially take his knee-bending slider and deploy it even more. Instead, the Jays asked Ray to revert to a longer arm circle, which has re-invented him as a pitcher yet again. Along with reducing the types of pitches he throws — with his sinker gone and his changeup completely missing from the April 24th start — they’ve asked him to return to his long arm circle with a fastball that’s nearly identical to his 2017 arsenal. Sometimes it’s best to go back to basics.

 

Closing Thoughts

 

We’ve come to our denouement, and like a fancy French arthouse film, there’s no clear winner, just many villains walking off-screen. Should we celebrate Robbie Ray pounding the strike zone with fastballs? Certainly, we’re looking at a small sample size, but we’re also looking at the possible (re)emergence of a top-tier pitcher. But it’s a really curious talking point about how a pitcher with such a long track record decided to abandon his strongest pitches and instead replace them with a re-formulated repertoire.

Imagine you’re back in school, and you’ve always been good at reading and not so good at math, and the teachers announce to you, “Blair, you’ll be an engineer instead of a writer because we want you to get better at the things that don’t come naturally to you.” Yeah, OK, maybe I’ve got a vested metaphorical interest in Robbie Ray‘s rebuilding. To me, the biggest mistake of my life was handing my strengths over to other people to mold, and spending years trying to overcome weaknesses that I never perceived, but others imposed upon me.

Now, let’s extrapolate that to Robbie Ray: he has devastating sliders and curveballs over the past few years. He had developed a sinker that was more than adequate in 2021. All he had to do was take away his weakest pitch — the fastball — and let his natural self shine. Instead, we’re seeing more and more motion adjustments, spin adjustments, mix adjustments, and a near abandonment of the pitches that come best to him.

Sometimes — and I say this as a guy who mentored people for 15 years in achieving their dreams — sometimes you just need to let a player do what comes naturally to them. You don’t need to micro-manage their every motion to make the player look like everybody else. Let their strengths shine, and who cares about the weaknesses.

Hey Robbie: You do you.

And now the movie reveals the plot twist: the narrator was the hero all along, hoping to spark enough change in a player/management relationship to save a player’s career. The tension was never Nick/Blair; the tension was Robbie/management. And the climax was Robbie becoming his own person, not the pitcher that statheads imagine he could be. Year after year trainers re-invent Robbie Ray, and it hasn’t worked. With Ray working on a one-year contract that barely pays more than some arbitration-level pitchers, we’re looking at a man who’s playing for his career in 2021. And the climax to this movie — called Ray of Hope, in case you missed the header — will be seen at the end of the year.

 

Photos by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire, Jeremy Hynes/Unsplash, Davide Cantelli/Unsplash | Adapted by Ethan Kaplan (@DJFreddie10 on Twitter and @EthanMKaplanImages on Instagram)

Blair Williams

Blair holds a PhD in Japanese history and is the author of "Making Japan's National Game: A Cultural History of Baseball." He's a fan of sci-fi, prog metal, and sipping rums.

  • Avatar Magic Oriole says:

    A lot to unpack here, but you did it. It’s all unpacked. I still don’t know if I should add him in AL only over Wacha, Flexen or Canning though. Or maybe that’s the point. I have to be my own self and decide. IS THAT WHAT I LEARNED?!

    I’ll be checking out “Storylines to Follow” either way.

    • Blair Williams Blair Williams says:

      Ha! I think that is what you learned. At Razzball, I advise people to look for the highest upside with the most likely outcome to happen. Of those pitchers listed, I like Ray/Wacha/Flexen/Canning in that order. Ray comes with the most risk, but he’s also the highest reward; I was twice as aggressive in my pre-season rankings on him as the consensus rankings. However, the safe bet is Wacha; I personally added Flexen in an industry tournament last week. Hope that helps!

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