The Flash Forward series takes a long-term look at a young player each week, projecting the type of player they’ll be five years from now.
Young, consistent starters are a hot commodity in dynasty leagues. The key to succeeding long-term is finding players that are on the verge of breaking out. Last year, one of those guys was Robbie Ray. After two fringey seasons, Ray broke out as one of the game’s top young starters.
In his age-25 season, Ray finished 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA, .197 BAA, and 1.15 WHIP. He ranked fourth in the Majors in strikeout percentage at 32.8 percent. His 218 strikeouts matched his career best, though he reached the mark in 12 fewer innings than 2016.
Ray had been a sleeper candidate the past few seasons. In 2017, he finally showed us why. Though his home runs allowed, walk, and strikeout numbers were nearly identical to 2016, Ray’s season was a huge improvement. The biggest key to his success was his ability to induce swing-and-misses. Ray threw far more strikes in 2017 and ranked fifth in swinging strike rate at 14.2 percent.
His 12.1 K/9 helped him earn All-Star honors and a seventh-place finish in the NL Cy Young voting. Ray did have some regression as far as batted balls go, though. He allowed more fly balls (32.6 in 2016 to 40.3 percent in 2017), and fewer ground balls (45.7 percent in 2016 to 40.3 percent in 2017). Ray has had to face the struggle of pitching at the hitter-friendly Chase Field, but with a new humidor possibly being installed for the 2018 season, pitchers should benefit from fewer home runs. In fact, a recent study estimated that a humidor in Chase Field could decrease home run production by 25-50 percent.
Ray averaged 3.9 walks per nine innings in 2017, though walks have been and always will be part of his game. Fortunately, so will 200-plus strikeouts. Anyone expecting Ray to change his approach on the mound will likely be disappointed. However, when you succeed despite the walks like Ray does, there isn’t much to be disappointed about.
I wouldn’t call Ray’s 2017 season an outlier, but I also wouldn’t expect as dominating a performance as 2017. Instead, I expect Ray to level out into a very serviceable starter. His ERA may not stay under 3.00, but you can bet on him reaching the 200 strikeout mark each year. As long as he can continue to mix his pitches well and get ahead in the count early like he did in 2017, the strikeout numbers won’t go anywhere.
For the foreseeable future, Ray can be counted on as a No. 2 starter in fantasy leagues. His inconsistency with the strike zone will keep him from being relied on as a true ace. Regardless, there’s a lot to be excited about with Robbie Ray. Two-hundred strikeouts in a season is no easy feat. What’s even more impressive is that Ray racked up 200-plus strikeouts on two occasions while registering fewer than 175 innings. If he can string together a couple of 200-inning seasons in the future, Ray could really establish himself as one of the game’s top fantasy pitchers.