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A look into Robbie Ray’s control problems

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Or, what happens when you consistently fall behind

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Detroit Tigers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

From 2015 to 2017, Robbie Ray emerged as one of the better young pitchers in baseball. In 464 innings over 83 starts, he posted a 3.82 ERA, backed up by a 3.68 FIP (and 3.69 SIERA/3.62 xFIP). Funny enough, all those metrics were 12% better than league aerage. If there was one drawback, it was relatively short outings, as he only averaged 5.6 innings per start, but if forced to choose quality trumps quantity.

A big part of the reason for shorter outings was how Ray achieved that success. He was actually below average at managing contact, but thrived anyway by limiting the contact to 62% of total batters faced (10% less than MLB average). He issued free passes 10% of the time, but more than made up for it with a 28% strikeout rate.

This profile is pretty much the definition of effectively wild: a power pitcher with tenuous control, but the ability to overwhelm hitters. There was actually an improvement between his 2015 rookie season and his 2016-17 peak, as his strikeout rate increased from 22% to 30% with his walk rate unchanged.

Things started going backward in 2018, and he hasn’t been the same since. He missed the end of 2017 with a concussion after being hit in the head, and the beginning of 2018 with an oblique strain. He was a still a good pitcher, posting 298 innings in 2018-19 at 4.17 ERA (4.30 FIP). His strikeout rate remained strong, but the free passes jumped above 12% to the point where they become a real problem as opposed to a manageable by-product of the strikeouts. On top of that, his contact management declined as well.

Then it all fell apart in 2020: a 6.62 ERA with an equally miserable 6.50 FIP in 51.2 innings. The walks ballooned to 18%, he got shelled when the ball was in play with a 13% barrel rate (twice MLB average) and hard contact almost half the time. The one saving grace was that though his strikeout rate backed up to 27%, it remained very robust in spite of the struggles.

So it was a little surprising when he was one of the first players to sign this winter as a free agent, and for $8-million in a market that was expected to be quite soft. Acquiring a seemingly broken pitcher at the trade deadline seemed curious if the goal was to bolster playoff chances, but it makes more sense if the idea was to introduce him and familiarize him with the organization as a reclamation project beyond 2020.

With limited starting options available this winter, it was an interesting gamble. The stuff is still top notch, so there’s no reason his pre-2018 is now unattaiable. There’s basically two big problems, the control and the contact. Fix one, and you probably get a serviceable back end starter. Fix both, and you get the 2016-17 slightly poor man’s front-of-the-rotation starter.

With the injuries, the Jays could certainly use a big year from Ray, and the Spring Training results so far are very encouraging. But of course, it’s still just Spring Training. I haven’t delved into the contact issues, but with the raw stuff still very good, I imagine a good part of it stems from the control problems. If Ray is constantly behind in the count, hitters can be very selective, hunt mistakes and attack when he has to come into the zone. To me, the control is the X-factor.

Accordingly, I wanted to drill down into exactly what’s happened and changed in these time periods, and pulled the pitch level Statcast data:

Ray control

What’s interesting is how little the high level data summary data changed from 2016-17 to 2018-19. Batters swing a little bit less, because Ray was in the zone a little bit less, but it wasn’t that far from league rates. That completely fell off the table in 2020, with batter swing rates plunging to 41%.

The first pitch was particularly instructive. Batters take about 72% of the time, with 39% called balls and 33% strikes. Ray was at 41%-42% first pitch balls in the prior periods, so falling behind a little more but not debilitating. In 2020, despite the overall first pitch swing rate remaining unchanged, the rate of balls surged to 48%, with called strikes down to 25%. He was behind a ton, and then batters got to him.

In spite of this, his contact rate remained excellent. While things completely fell apart in 2020, it really seems like some pretty small tweaks that improved his control back just back to manageable level could make a huge difference.