“I released it, he’s swinging, and as he’s making contact, I’m like, “Oh boy, this is gonna hit me, and so I turn… and it hit me, and it actually ricocheted off my head…my ears were ringing, so loud that it was hurting my eyes.
“When I hit the ground, I just went straight for my hat, and ripped my hat off, and I was bleeding. From the time I hit the ground, it was really…kinda crazy. I just had this, like, amazing peace about me. It was like God was saying ‘Hey, you’re OK.’ It’s like, ‘I got you.'”
Line Drive Divine
On July 28, 2017, Luke Voit smashed a 108 MPH line drive into Robbie Ray’s skull. The ball impacted Ray’s head just above his left temple, missing his eye by inches. At 108mph, the ball carried about 173 joules worth of energy, about the same energy as if he had been shot with a .22 caliber bullet from a rifle. The impact of the baseball against Ray’s skull caused his brain to crash into the side of his skull, resulting in a traumatic brain injury, more commonly known as a concussion. Ray collapsed in the fetal position on the mound, clutching his head, his arms shaking.
The baseball deflected off Ray’s skull in a high arc like a goose tagged by a hunter mid-flight and knowingly bracing for impact with the ground. Some sixty feet away from the mound, Diamondbacks’ third baseman Jake Lamb dove and caught the ball in the air for an out, his acrobatics going unnoticed as players, umpires, and trainers raced to the pitcher who lay prone on the field.
Oblivious to the chaos around him, Ray focused on the divine message in his head, communicated by his God that he so fervently trusted. He would be OK. Ray’s faith carried him through the moment of his life where he had come closest to death.
With the help of trainers and a mobile kart, Ray left the field under his own power and was then transported to a hospital. Following a month of convalescence from his concussion, Ray returned to finish the 2017 season with a 2.28 ERA over his last 8 starts, posting a stunning 5.15 K/BB ratio. That off-season, the 25-year old Ray finished 7th in the NL Cy Young race, just ahead of the 29-year old Jacob DeGrom. The 2017 Diamondbacks roster featured Paul Goldschmidt, Zack Greinke, AJ Pollock, Ketel Marte, and Patrick Corbin. After a mid-season acquisition of J.D. Martinez powered the Diamondbacks to a second place finish in the NL West, Ray seemed like a bright young ace in a thrilling franchise.
By 2020, though, the Diamondbacks were in a complete rebuild and jettisoned Ray for a middle reliever.
What happened in the space of two years that changed Robbie Ray from a future ace to a burden on a rebuilding team?
I want to tease out the reasons why Robbie Ray’s career was once so promising, and why Ray — who is only 29 years old — could make a return to Major League and fantasy relevance in the near future.
The Once–and Future?–Ace
The line demarcating the highlights of Robbie Ray’s career from the lowlights, was really more of a line drive. After getting hit in the head, the man on the mound after 2018 was never really the same Robbie Ray that took the mound before 2017.
“Vexing” and “ugly” and “terrible pitching” are words about Robbie Ray that stand out from Zach Buchanan’s scathing 2020 trade-deadline piece about Ray in The Athletic. I’m not here to defend Robbie Ray from Buchanan’s accusation that a 7.81 ERA and nearly 8BB/9 rate is, indeed, ugly. Instead, I want to focus on why that pitcher who was “vexing” and “ugly” was sought by so many teams, but so for little value in exchange. The Toronto Blue Jays eventually secured Ray’s services in exchange for cash and the contract of Travis Bergen. Bergen, a 25-year old reliever, had BB/9 numbers that made Ray look like a control freak.
Looking at Robbie Ray’s early-career numbers, he was primed for stardom. Drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 12th round of the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft out of Brentwood High School in Tennessee, the Nationals paid Ray $800,000 to reconsider his commitment to the University of Arkansas. Given the choice of playing for free in university or taking the near-million on the table, Ray joined the ranks of minor league players trying their hand at a shot at stardom. Between 2010-2013, Ray threw nearly 80 starts in the Nats’ minor league system with somewhat erratic results that largely stemmed from his inability to consistently throw his fastball. John Sickels reported that his fastball in these years ranged anywhere from 88 to 95 MPH, with his inconsistent mechanics largely to blame. However, Ray was younger than his minor league competition, and he rose through the ranks quickly by continuously sporting K/9 rates above 9 and sub-4.00 FIP seasons.
The Nationals traded Ray to the Detroit Tigers for Doug Fister, and Ray made his major league debut on May 6, 2014. Although the Tigers traded a valuable veteran starting pitcher for the prospect in Ray, they didn’t like what they saw in-person. Ray pitched 28 innings at the big league level for the Tigers in 2014, compiling an 8.16 ERA and earning a ticket to Arizona that off-season. From 2015-2017 with the Diamondbacks, Ray solidified his pitches and hit 94-95 more consistently on his fastball, and his slider and curve started missing more bats.
2017 — the year Ray was fit in the head with a line drive — marked Robbie Ray’s third year as a full-time starter, and the 25-year old from Tennessee had become one of the most promising pitchers in Major League Baseball. 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 Harvey, Max Scherzer, and Justin Verlander. With those career comparisons, it seemed like Robbie Ray would be the future of the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise.
But the year after his concussion, Ray lost control of his pitches, piling up a frightening 5 walks per nine innings over the course of the 2018 season. When he did get his pitches over the plate, Ray watched more and more of them leave the ballpark, culminating in a batting-practice worthy 2.26 HR/9 in 2020. More than just control, Ray’s pitches lost efficacy. From his peak in 2017, his fastball lost 3mph, and his curveball lost 6 inches of break. As a result, his curve transitioned from one of his “out” pitches into a pitch that had two consecutive years of a an expected slugging percentage of about .600.
Despite losing his “stuff,” Ray’s swinging strike rate on all his pitches remained constant. When the ball did get over the plate, the outcome was explosive: either the batter mashed the ball — often out of the park — or they swung mightily and missed.
However, Ray is known for tinkering with his mechanics, and he’s always looking to improve. Having just turned 29-years old at the end of the 2020 season, Ray is nearly two years younger than Jacob DeGrom, Stephen Strasburg, Sonny Gray, Mike Minor, Kenta Maeda, Jake Odorizzi, Clayton Kershaw…you get the idea. There’s plenty of time for Robbie Ray to refashion himself as a the starter who ranked top 30 in WAR from 2015-2017, when he was just 23-25 years old.
From Fantasy to Reality…and Back Again
Despite the “terrible pitching” stigma conferred upon Ray from the journalism crowd, Ray has has a high value to real life teams. From 2016-2020, Robbie Ray was third among qualified starting pitchers in K/9 rate, 29th in innings pitched, 16th in games started, and 76th in ERA. By WAR, he’s the 46th best starting pitcher in that period, ahead of comparably-experienced starters Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jake Odorizzi, Zach Davies, Dylan Bundy, Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Kyle Gibson, and Julio Teheran. And, indeed, Robbie Ray has the third worst walk rate of qualified starters in that period.
Ray’s second-half stint in 2020 with the Blue Jays was, indeed, underwhelming: a 4.79 ERA over his final 5 appearances, with his K/9 around 11 and his BB/9 remaining north of 6. The Blue Jays made the playoffs, although Ray wasn’t a huge part of that process, having contributed only 20 innings of mediocre baseball over the month of September. When looking at WAR, however, Robbie Ray notched a bit better contribution to his team in September than did Chris Paddack, Kyle Wright, Aaron Civale, Dustin May, and Max Fried.
But, 2020 will be a baffling year for baseball analysts and prognosticators. Great pitchers had rough patches. Gerrit Cole had a 4 game stint where he averaged a 4.79 ERA and walked 3.5 batters per 9 innings. In a normal season, that would be nothing but noise to his usual sterling signal; but in 2020, that rough patch was 30% of Cole’s season. Over Aaron Nola’s final five starts, he sported a 4.61 ERA and a 3.62 BB/9 rate. Zack Greinke finished 8th in WAR among starting pitchers in 2020; over his last 7 starts, his ERA was 5.73 and he allowed 1.43 HR/9. Lance Lynn — that guy that every fantasy shark wanted in 2020 — finished his last 6 starts with a 5.35 ERA and a 1.86 HR/9.
I don’t think there will be a “What went wrong with Aaron Nola?” article this winter.
But, everybody’s asking “What went ever more wrong with Robbie Ray?” Given the struggles that so many top pitchers had over the course of the 2020 season, I’m not so sure we can single out Ray as a guy who is as “wrong” or “terrible” as pundits want to claim. Sure, “terrible pitching” makes a great lede that people click, and then readers nod along as they get their confirmation bias that, indeed, Ray was “ugly” and nearly “worthless” as a pitcher. But, if we’re going to be analysts that are worth our salt, then we need to point out and examine why all these other “great” pitchers had stretches — some of these stretches crucial for the playoffs — where they performed worse than Robbie Ray. Moreover, many of these pitchers have been less valuable to their team’s performance than Ray has over the past few years.
So, how do we baseball analysts advocate for the reinvention of Robbie Ray? I think the answer is that Robbie Ray needs change his identity.
The Next Corbin Burnes?
To close out this article, I want to shout something into the void and see if it works: Robbie Ray should pull a Corbin Burnes. Corbin Burnes left 2019 as a prospect who struggled at the major league level, and then he finished 2020 as the #10 pitcher on the Razzball player rater. Burnes’ trajectory was altered when he abandoned his awful four-seam fastball — which in 2019 had a -18 runs saved value and which batters torched for a .823 slugging percentage — for a sinker/cutter combo. With a new combo of moving fastballs to setup batters, Burnes’ breaking balls became nearly unhittable, with batters whiffing on them about 50% of the time. By the end of 2020, Burnes was 6th in the MLB among starting pitchers in WAR, and Burnes owned the highest WAR per innings pitched among starters.
Robbie Ray has already tried to make changes to his delivery in an effort to recover his career. Michael Ajeto over at Pitcher List was excited by Robbie Ray’s change in delivery early in 2020, but Ray is known for tinkering with his mechanics regularly. Ray’s 2020 flop happened after Ajeto wrote his article, so it’s safe to say that the most recent attempt to change Ray’s delivery made, well, things worse.
In my advice to the invisible baseball gods who are undoubtedly reading this fantasy baseball blog, I want to focus on Ray’s pitch repertoire. One notable change that occurred in Ray’s repertoire from his successful 2015-2017 period as compared to his 2018-2020 period, was that Ray dropped his sinker usage. In 2015-2016, Ray threw his four-seamer and sinker for nearly 60% of his pitches. Starting in 2017, though, Ray’s sinker began failing, and he nearly eliminated it from his pitch selection by 2018. In 2019, the sinker made a return and accounted for 10% of his pitches, and it was surprisingly effective. Batters hit his sinker, but with an average launch angle of 7 degrees and the lowest exit velocity of any of his pitches, the sinker was a utilitarian pitch. The sinker got outs, but it didn’t get the K’s that Ray was known for.
Robbie Ray — the guy with the third highest K/9 in MLB from 2016 onward — shouldn’t have been throwing a sinker, right? Ray is not a pitch-to-contact kind of guy, because when batters made contact, they made home runs. I think the consensus thinking believed that Ray should aim to strike out as many people as possible, and even move to the bullpen if necessary.
But, one does not take the pitcher with the 16th most starts over the past five years and put him into the bullpen, right? Did the Brewers put Corbin Burnes in the bullpen? No, they changed his pitch repertoire
So, how can Robbie Ray pull a Corbin Burnes? By bringing back his sinker and striking fewer people out.
In 2020, batters absolutely crushed Ray’s fastball. With batters launching Ray’s fastball at an average of 25 degrees, it accounted for basically all of the home runs he allowed. Meanwhile, Ray’s sinker, which appeared a scant 3.7% of his pitches, had an average exit velocity of 84.4, nearly 7 MPH lower than his four seam fastball. He sinker rated an expected batting average of .242 and an xwOBA of .371, and it was his most accurate pitch by far. And despite throwing his sinker the most against the San Diego Padres, not a single one of his 86 sinkers left the park.
Let’s put that in context: batters hit a home run off of Ray’s fastball at a rate of 1HR per 50 fastballs. What’s more, batters hit a double off his fastball at another 1:50 ratio, meaning, about every 25 fastballs, Ray allowed either double or a home run.
The sinker? There were three singles and one double.
The catch? Over the course of those 86 sinkers, there were basically zero strikeouts. Brooks Baseball and Fangraphs say Ray didn’t strike out anybody with the sinker — and in fact, they say not a single batter swung and missed on the slider — and Baseball Savant says he struck out 3 batters with an 8% whiff rate (extremely low). Regardless of the site data, Ray’s sinker is a pitch that doesn’t miss bats, but conversely, batters struggle to do anything with it. With an expected batting average of just .111 against his sinker in 2020, Ray has a powerful pitch that just isn’t, well, in his nature to throw.
One reason that Ray’s sinker may have gone unnoticed so far: it wasn’t a stunning pitch in 2019. Again, the sinker was boring: Ray controlled it better than any of his other pitches, but batters regularly made contact with it (in the case of 2019, his sinker predominantly caused ground balls and few hitters put it into the air).
But, like many pitchers are doing right now, Robbie Ray spent time going into 2020 increasing the spin rate of his fastball (increasing it nearly 10% in one year from 2257 to 2420 RPM). The corollary effect of the work on his fastball was that the spin rate on his sinker increased, from 2182 to 2343 RPM. This caused his 2020 sinker to sink 10% more than his 2019 sinker. What’s even more amazing? While Robbie Ray lost nearly 3MPH on his fastball from 2017 through 2020, his sinker actually gained velocity, sitting at an average of 93.5 MPH, which was nearly as fast as his four seamer.
Robbie Ray might be the next Corbin Burnes. Of course, it would mean abandoning what made him “Robbie Ray” — that being the stunning K/9 rate. Ray has a sinker that he can control and use to induce batters to create weak contact. However, it won’t strike anybody out. Meanwhile, Ray has a slider and curveball combo that batters struggle mightily to make contact with. Perhaps if Ray switched to a sinker/slider/curve makeup, he would return to MLB and fantasy relevance as soon as 2021.
As spring training comes around in 2021, listen for news about Ray and his sinker. There may be signs that Ray is striking out fewer batters, but that would be a good thing — a 13 K/9 isn’t very useful for pitchers giving up 2+ HR/9 and 5 BB/9. But imagine a 10 K/9 pitcher with 1 HR/9 and 3 BB/9. Players who match that criteria? Carlos Carrasco, Zac Gallen, and Jose Berrios.
For fantasy purposes, Robbie Ray will be undrafted in most leagues, save the deepest redrafts. I doubt Grey will even put him in his top 100 starting pitchers, and I would put him as a dart throw. For dynasty owners, he’s worth a stash on a rebuild team. Again, Robbie Ray is just 29, and his fantasy ADP will be negligible. Imagine getting Zac Gallen in the last round of your fantasy draft. Especially if you’re in Razzslam next year, it might be worth a flier to see if somebody in the Blue Jays system catches on to Ray’s sinker.
So, if anybody’s got a connection with Robbie Ray out there, give him a shout, and let him know that there’s nothing wrong with allowing some pitch to contact. It might save his career, and it might give us fantasy analysts some warm fuzzies knowing that we helped out.
Aye, you made it this far, didn’t ya. EverywhereBlair is, well, located at home right now. He’s a historian and lover of prog-metal. He enjoys a good sipping rum. When he’s not churning data and making fan fiction about Grey and Donkey Teeth, you can find him dreaming of shirtless pictures of Lance Lynn on Twitter @Everywhereblair.