Right and Wrong: Robbie Ray 2021 Fantasy Outlook
Welcome back to another article! Have you done your holiday shopping yet? If you’re reading this article today on 12/15 I would sure hope so because you have 10 days until Christmas. I try to not just provide fantasy baseball advice in these pieces but real-life advice if I can. Now, for those that do have their holiday shopping done, we can dive into some fantasy baseball. There is going to be a lot of coal in this piece coming up so I will give a fair warning. In a season in which a global pandemic was occurring, and we only had 60 games of data, it is incredibly hard to make assessments about players and their performances, and that includes Robbie Ray, who I’ll be looking at in this article.
As with many sports, there are many factors that come into play when looking at how a player performed during a particular season. Players may be statistically slow starters, not play well in certain weather, have problems with certain teams that they continued to face in the re-alignment, and more. What a player has done in their career before 2020 needs to be taken into consideration for these exact reasons.
This offseason, I’ll be doing a series of articles looking at what went right, what went wrong, and the overall 2021 outlook for certain players. I can only take into account the data that has been given and use that to best assess what to expect from each player in 2021. This should be fun! Let’s dive into our next player in this series: Robbie Ray.
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What Went Right for Robbie Ray in 2020
Maintained Great K%
Looking at Ray’s 2020 season as a whole, it isn’t pretty. However, one aspect of Ray’s game continues to shine, and that’s his strikeouts. While his K% was down 4%, he still had a respectable 27% K rate in 2020. Robbie Ray also still nearly averaged 12 K/9 between both Arizona and Toronto in 2020.
Ray continues to whiff batters at an elite rate and it all comes from his amazing slider. His slider was once again incredibly elite with an expected batting average of .164, expected .273 SLG, and expected .208 xwOBA. It also came with 1 HR in 324 pitches and a 47% whiff rate. This pitch is one of the nastiest in baseball and has continued to be so for years. No reason it won’t be the same in 2021.
Trade to Toronto
Ray looked like a complete lost cause in 2020. Prior to his trade to Toronto, he was one of the worst starters in the National League, posting a 7.84 ERA and a 2.00 WHIP in his 31 innings. Those numbers are not safe for children to see. While Ray still remained a strikeout artist (struck out 43 batters), he also issued 31 walks and threw six wild pitches. Those 31 walks led the NL, even though he pitched in the other league the last month of the season
Although Ray was not great in Toronto, he showed some marginal improvement. Ray posted a 4.97 ERA and a 1.74 WHIP in his 20.2 innings, striking out 25 batters with 14 walks. His walk rate also decreased. Ray is a project, that’s not debatable, but he looked to make some real positive changes in his new environment.
Change in Mechanics
We have heard this before so it’s okay if you’re skeptical. When Robbie Ray switched to the highly publicized shortened-arm circle, it had many of us (including me) think it would help him stay more in the zone and ultimately fix his control problems. That, unfortunately, went as far opposite as you could go and it led to Ray being traded.
Ray landed with Toronto and seemed to almost instantly be able to throw harder. He had a fastball late in the season that went up to 97.2 mph. That 97.2 mph fastball was the hardest pitch Ray has thrown since 2018 when he topped that mark just once. Otherwise, you have to look all the way back to that excellent 2017 season to find peak velocities like Ray showed in this particular start.
Velocity jumps aren’t a product of simply throwing harder. For some pitchers, it means more efficient mechanics, while for others it could mean a stronger drive with their lower body. There are other factors and possibilities as well. Ray’s secret was more natural.
Ray said as much when asked about his velocity jump, “The biggest thing is that I felt athletic on the mound,” Ray said. “I felt like I was getting to my load, getting to my back side and driving down the mound like I normally do. That was the biggest thing.”
Take this as you will because we have heard this story before. However, the results in Toronto as mentioned above are encouraging.
What Went Wrong
Control Remains Scary-Bad
Robbie Ray was an All-Star in 2017 and was a strikeout artist. His command had begun to falter following his All-Star season, and Ray turned into an effective but inefficient pitcher. He was still one of the premier strikeout pitchers in the game, although the opposition has begun to hit him harder.
Ray had a 17.9% walk rate in 2020. Let that sink in. That was in the bottom 2% of the league. He also saw his first-pitch strike percentage go down 7% to barely over 50% of the batters he faced. As mentioned above, he also threw 6 wild pitches. This is not an outlier as Ray has seen his walk rate steadily rise since his debut with the Tigers in 2014.
The increased walk rate has led to Ray’s WHIP and opponents batting averages to rise as well. When behind in the count as Ray often is, he has to throw more fastballs in the zone and that led to him getting crushed.
Robbie Ray’s bad control comes down to this. The worst control, the more base runners are on base when you give up the “big hit.” With bad control, the more pitches you’re throwing per at-bat and less chance you are able to qualify for wins. This isn’t just big for real life to help his team win and not tax his bullpen, but it’s big for fantasy as well. If Ray can’t make it through 5 IP, that kills his possibility of getting your fantasy team a win and extra points from him.
Troubling Batted Ball Profile
This may be the most troubling part of this section. When you look at Ray’s page, he’s a Mr. Freeze down to the definition of it. For those that don’t know, a Mr. Freeze is when someone’s statcast page is almost all blue. That is certainly the case for Robbie Ray.
Ray ranked within the bottom 10 percentile in all of baseball in Exit Velocity, xERA, Barrel Percentage, xwOBA, and Hard-Hit Percentage. In other words, Ray was hit really hard and it actually could have been even worse than it was.
Besides his advanced stats, there were other troubling parts in his profile. Ray had his line drive rate go up and his groundball rate go down. Both troubling for a pitcher. Not only was this the 5th consecutive year of his groundball rate going down, but it was cut in half in 2020, after gradual decreases prior. Ray’s line drive rate has steadily inclined over the last 4 seasons and both that and his flyball rate were the highest of his career this past season.
Maybe the most troubling part of Ray’s profile? How many balls are leaving the yard. Robbie Ray’s Homerun to flyball rate has been 18.6% or more each of the last two seasons. In other words, not very good. Ray’s HR/9 has gone up each of the last 5 seasons to a career-worst 2.26 this season. RAY IS ALLOWING OVER 2 HOMERUNS PER 9 INNINGS! That is beyond awful. With hitters hitting of Ray like never before, this has become the scariest part of his profile.
One Elite Pitch
We know how great Ray’s slider is as stated above. However, when Ray is not able to get to his slider as a strikeout pitch, he has significant problems with the rest of his arsenal.
Ray has had major problems locating his fastball. This has been a problem as he’s getting behind hitters from the start. On top of that, Ray’s fastball velocity had been steadily dropping over the last few years. Ray had lost almost two miles an hour on his fastball, from a 94.3mph average in 2017 to a 92.4 average in 2019. His velocity did go back up to 93.7mph last season (a big spike after his trade with Toronto) and it ranked in the 80th percentile for spin-rate. It was still not great as opponents still hit nearly .300 and slugged nearly .700 off the pitch.
Looking at his other offerings, his curveball has a very similar whiff rate to his fastball which is great. The problem is that it was crushed in 2020 with a .474 BAA. It’s expected BA was closer to .350 which means it was due for some regression but still not effective. He used the curveball roughly a similar percentage as when it was an effective offering in 2019, but he added 2 mph to the pitch and it lost 5 inches of drop. Just like how a change-up can lose some effectiveness when sped up, maybe his curveball did as well.
Outlook for Robbie Ray in 2021
It was a tough go for Ray in 2020, who posted a 6.62 ERA, 11.8 K/9, and 2.3 HR/9. His 7.8 BB/9 was the highest of any pitcher in baseball with at least 50 innings pitched. This was all over 51 2/3 combined innings for the Diamondbacks and Blue Jays.
Looking for a positive, Ray’s numbers over his 20 2/3 innings with the Jays were better than his numbers with the D’Backs, even though even a 4.79 ERA is nothing special. His 6.1 BB/9, and 1.7 HR/9 were also steps in the right direction.
According to NFBC ADP, Robbie Ray is the 132nd pitcher off the board at roughly pick 338. In a 12-team league, that means that he’s going in the 29th round – basically free. Ray’s concerns are definitely there, however, with an over 11 K/9 upside, I will gladly take a stab at Ray at this price. The worst-case scenario is a stash at the end of your draft to keep on your bench and drop if he keeps up his woes. If he can find anything close to his 2017 self, you have the steal of the draft.
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