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Where Have Robbie Ray's Strikeouts Gone?

Robbie Ray - Fantasy Baseball Rankings, MLB Injury News, Draft Sleepers

Winning the Cy Young award is quite a prestigious honor. From Don Newcombe in 1956 to Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and many more, that honor puts you in elite company.

Last season, we saw two pitchers take home their first Cy Young award. However, whereas Corbin Burnes (NL) was seen as ascending talent that was a Cy Young candidate in 2020, no analyst in the world could have predicted Robbie Ray to take home the AL Cy Young award. As you'd expect, winning that award leads to significantly higher expectations, which can often be tough to meet.

So far, the results haven't quite been there for Ray. Strangely, though, if there was a path to him struggling, how he is doing so currently isn't how you would imagine it. Now, the question is: was Ray's Cy Young season just a blip on the radar, or will he get back on track? Today, we'll be diving into research on perhaps the most complicated pitcher in baseball. By the end, hopefully, we will have an idea of who the real Robbie Ray is!

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Robbie Ray's Ascension To This Point

Most Cy Young award winners follow a smooth path to greatness. However, that has not been the case for Ray. From the get-go, he was a 12th-round pick in the 2010 MLB draft. While high schoolers can sometimes fall until the third day of the draft only to agree to higher a signer bonus, Ray was given a signing bonus equivalent to a fourth-round pick.

Originally, Ray wasn't seen as a top-notch prospect. He did do enough to finally crack MLB Pipeline's top-100 prospects in 2014, but he never truly stood out at any minor-league level. Plus, he faced plenty of adversity; he was traded from the Nationals to the Tigers following the 2013 season, and then again from the Tigers to the Diamondbacks the following year. That's quite a large amount of movement in quite a short period.

At the same time, it isn't a surprise that a player like Ray would find himself traded. As alluded to previously, his production in the minors was adequate, yet quite not at the level that you expect. However, when you're a left-handed pitcher with plus velocity, the tools are going to be worth taking a chance on; as they say in Million Dollar Arm, "lefty with juice is good."

Eventually, the Diamondbacks got to reap the rewards of Ray's illustrious potential. By his second full season in the majors in 2018, he struck out 28.1% of the batters he faced. After that, he struck out 31.9% of the batters he faced between 2017 and 2019, while he posted a 3.72 ERA and 3.81 skill interactive ERA (SIERA). In fantasy, specifically, those strikeouts are quite valuable, and he seemed to be in line to receive a nice contract in free agency given the booming market for free-agent starting pitchers. After all, the only barrier remaining between Ray and a free-agent payday was the infamous COVID-shortened 2020 season. Really, all he needed was to be productive for two short months.

Of course, as is the case with everything that happened in 2020, things did not go smoothly. Ray's ERA (6.62) and FIP (6.50) spiked to enormously high levels, while he was a below-replacement level player. Heck, he was even demoted to the bullpen! In other words, I think it is safe to say that 2020 went about as poorly as it could go for Ray.

Thus, instead of a multi-year contract, Ray had to settle for a one-year, $8 million contract with the Blue Jays. Even for just a one-year deal, this seemed to be a slight overpay from some analysts, and it was hard to have any idea what to expect from Ray in 2021. Just for perspective, in the NFBC Main Event, he had an average draft position (ADP) of pick #260, equivalent to an 18th-round pick. In other words, there wasn't a lot of faith in him.

So, how does a player go from that to a Cy Young award winner? It all comes down to command. See, even though Ray was having success, walks remained a notable issue for him. Following 2020, he had a career walk rate of 11%, leading to a below-average WHIP of 1.38. Not only did this directly impact his overall numbers, but it also led to him working his pitch count up early; there was a clear cap on the number of innings he could provide per game. Really, there were few pitchers in baseball where you wish you could normalize their walk rate more than Ray; the upside was so enticing if he could put that together.

Well, in 2021, it finally happened! Ray's walk rate dropped all the way down to 6.7%, while his WHIP dipped to 1.04. Since fewer batters faced were being given the free pay, even with him allowing slightly more contact, his strikeout (32.1%) actually was the second-highest of his career, while he was also able to pitch 193.1 innings. The key? Pounding the zone (50.8%) early in often. Since this appeared to be a change with clear intent, it was easy to see why you would believe that this could continue. What we weren't expecting, however, was another issue to come into focus. At this point, when it comes to Robbie Ray, should we be surprised by anything?


Why Are Robbie Ray's Strikeouts Down?

Ray was able to parlay his Cy-Young season into a five-year, $115 million contract with the Seattle Mariners. Meanwhile, in fantasy land, he was a top-45 pick in the NFBC event- quite the turnaround from the 18th round!

Yet, so far, Ray's early start of the season hasn't been particularly encouraging. While his walk rate gains have remained mainly intact (7.8% BB), he's suddenly not striking batters out. If you expected Ray to have a 17.6% strikeout rate after his first four starts, take a bow, and get a lottery ticket. It was easy to see his command regressing and him walking more batters, but to suddenly not be able to do the one thing he has been able to do his entire career is quite puzzling.

So, how did we get to this point? It's quite complicated. For starters, Ray's velocity (92.2 MPH) is down 2.5 MPH from last season, which is an immediate concern. In April last year, Ray was sitting 95.3 MPH, for context, so this would not be an issue regarding him just struggling while the weather is cooler. Perhaps there is an injury that is being hidden, but whatever the reason, the velocity coming back will be important.

However, I think this goes beyond the velocity. While Ray is allowing slightly more contact in the zone (78.7%), it would not be enough to explain this dramatic downwards shift in strikeouts. Really, hitters are just approaching him differently. Last season, when Ray started throwing more balls in the zone, hitters responded with a much higher zone-swing rate (73.1%). In the end, though, it didn't matter; he induced plenty of swings outside the zone (30.1%) and feasted on getting swings and misses there. He's still getting whiffs there (46.4% chase contact rate), but hitters suddenly stopped swinging at those pitches (19.5% chase rate). Meanwhile, this isn't a case of him facing passive teams; hitters have been even more aggressive (78.87%) swinging on pitches inside the zone. Simply put, that combination is not ideal and has led to a standard whiff rate of 25.3%.

Why is this happening? To answer this, let's go into the proverbial show of the hitters he's facing. So far this season, Ray has thrown even more pitches (57.3%) inside the zone. At one point, it was so predictable that Ray couldn't command the zone that hitters would naturally be passive. Now, though, is it possible that Ray has become too predictable in the inverse fashion? There is a clear emphasis to swing early and often against him, and as long as that continues to be the case, there is always the chance for more early balls in play. While that will allow him to work deep into games, as he has done thus far (25.1 IP in four starts), it may lead to fewer strikeouts if it is a growing trend.

See, despite throwing more pitches in the zone, Ray's 12.7% called-strike rate is a career-low number. That speaks to increased aggression by opposing hitters. Fortunately, called strikes are a very volatile statistic, and Ray should face more passive teams in the future. Three of his opponents thus far (KC, CHW, TEX) rank in the top-four in zone-swing rate, while they all also rank in the bottom-seven in strikeout rate. That combination is likely skewing Ray's numbers, but it doesn't describe everything. Why isn't he getting more chases in the zone considering he's facing aggressive teams? Plus, this shouldn't be a pitcher dependent on matchups; he should thrive regardless.

Something that sticks out to me so far has been Ray's usage of his slider. The pitch has induced fewer whiffs (33.3%) thus far, and is the one that stands out with regards to his strikeout rate being lower; his fastball whiff rate is down only two percentage points, but his slider is down 11%. That is a considerable amount and may speak to his command of it.

Here is how he located it last year:

Meanwhile, here is how he is locating it so far this year:

As you can see, there are more sliders being located over the middle of the plate in the early going of 2022. The command can be fickle, but I think he could benefit greatly from throwing fewer of them in the zone. It's hard to explain why it has induced just a 23% chase rate so far, but this has been Ray's bread-and-butter putaway pitch. With better optimization of it moving forward, the strikeouts could improve.

Now, some of Ray's struggles can be tied to a rainy night in Chicago on April 13th. The game was delayed due to weather, and upon it starting, Ray clearly wasn't himself. His 8% swinging-strike rate that game sticks out like a sore thumb, as does the 86.8% contact rate. Now, he hasn't been himself in his other games, but it is much more encouraging if you give him a pass for that game. After all, it has only been four starts, so any outlier game will throw off the data significantly. There are clear issues that need to be fixed, though at least the underlying numbers shouldn't be exactly where they are currently.

So, to sum it up: too many pitches in the zone appear to be leading to more aggression, and for whatever reason, he isn't inducing chases. Meanwhile, completely unrelated, the velocity appears to be down, which may be impacting his slider, as is him leaving it over the heart of the plate so far. It's quite a complex puzzle and is truly difficult to solve. On the bright side, though, we have identified the source(s) of it.


What To Expect From Ray Moving Forward

The most encouraging statistic from Ray's recent performance against the Royals? A 51.1% zone rate, which is much lower than it was in his first three starts, and right in line with where it was in 2021. Is this the start of him reverting back to where he was last year in terms of strategy? Let's hope so. I'm confident that the called strikes should come eventually, and it appears that Ray has run into a slate of teams who don't strike out, yet are weak overall offenses (KC, TEX), leading to fine results but poor strikeout numbers.

Now, this doesn't account for the velocity decrease or him not inducing chases despite facing aggressive teams. I'm very intrigued to see how Ray does against the Marlins and Rays, two teams who strike out often. If the velocity is still down, and he's still not putting away hitters, then he might have an issue. However, he isn't even a 17.3% strikeout rate true-talent pitcher with how he's pitched thus far, and I wouldn't just assume he can't miss bats anymore.

The reasons to be concerned with Ray heading into this season aren't really there if he continues to not walk batters. In the end, we should expect the chase rate and called strike rate to come back to the norm, especially if he becomes slightly less predictable with how he is peppering the zone. If so, you're getting a pitcher who clearly is allowed to go deep into games, pitches in a pitcher-friendly ballpark, and should eventually be a plus asset in both strikeouts and WHIP. We aren't getting a repeat of what he got last year, but Ray's reasonable 3.78 ERA Steamer projection with a 28.8% strikeout rate still allows Ray to finish as the 17th most-valuable pitcher for the rest of the season, per Fangraphs auction calculator.

Personally, I would be making sure to hold onto Ray, and could certainly consider buying low on him if the right opportunity presented himself. We need to see Ray make some tweaks, but he's done so before! I think we may be heading in the right direction, so don't give up now! We're almost certainly not getting another Cy Young award from him this season, but don't let that cloud what most likely will still be a very productive season for the 30-year-old. Hopefully, we can soon move past this puzzle, and go on to our next adventure!

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