For much of this season, the presumption has been that the AL Cy Young Award would be Gerrit Cole's to lose. But what if it's actually now Robbie Ray's to win
As the $324 million arm pitching as well as ever for the team he rooted for growing up, Cole has both the numbers and the narrative to capture his first individual hardware, an honor that many expected the Yankees ace would one day claim. But could a pitcher who had to settle for an $8 million deal because his 2020 was so frustrating pull off an upset for the ages, especially after Cole took a couple extra days between starts after a sore left hamstring caused him to exit early on Sept. 7?
And if the Blue Jays left-hander does win the award -- or even if he comes close as a near-lock to finish in the top three in the voting at this point -- what might that mean for the enigmatic-but-talented starter's future as a free agent this offseason?
Let's start here. How rough was Ray's performance a year ago? He finished with a 6.62 ERA and a 1.90 WHIP -- in large part due to an MLB-worst 45 walks -- in 51 2/3 innings between the D-backs and Blue Jays. Never known for his control or command, Ray's inability to avoid free passes crescendoed to the point that the D-backs dealt him to Toronto at the Trade Deadline for little-known lefty reliever Travis Bergen. (Arizona proceeded to designate Bergen for assignment in February 2021 before trading him back to the Blue Jays for cash considerations.)
Ray was better for the Blue Jays after the swap, if only slightly -- a 4.79 ERA with a 1.74 WHIP in a minute sample of 20 2/3 innings -- but he flashed enough for the club to re-sign him early in the offseason.
As MLB.com's Keegan Matheson wrote at the time: "It may look counterintuitive on the surface level, after the Blue Jays spoke about the importance of improving the club’s strike-throwing entering 2021, but this move is clearly about who Toronto thinks Ray can be, not who he was in '20. ... Pitching coach Pete Walker and the Blue Jays don’t need to get Ray to the point where he’s painting corners each and every start. As long as Ray can find the zone with some level of consistency, his fastball and slider can be dominant when it all clicks."
Talk about an on-point assessment. The 29-year-old Ray entered this week leading the AL in ERA (2.69), strikeouts (220) and innings pitched (170 1/3), while his WHIP (1.03) and walks-per-nine rate (2.3) are by far the best in his career.
So, how did this happen?
AT HOME IN THE ZONE
Sometimes the simplest possible explanation fits. Ray has been much more around the strike zone this year. To be exact, 51.0 percent of his pitches have been in the zone, up dramatically from his '20 rate of 42.9 percent, which was a career low. That 8.1 percentage-point increase is the largest year over year and a key reason why Ray has been one of the most improved players in the sport.
His 2021 in-zone rate also is the second highest in his career, other than his first season in The Show back in 2014, when he threw 51.9 percent of pitches in the zone (albeit in only 28 2/3 innings). To get a better sense of how noteworthy this turnaround is, check out this chart showing Ray's steady decline in the category ... until this year:
WHISKING AWAY THE WALKS
Being around the strike zone more should lead to a lower walk rate, and that has happened for Ray. What's wild, however, is just how stark the numbers are.
Remember, this is a pitcher who walked the most batters during last year's shortened season. In Ray's first outing of 2021, he issued three free passes in five frames and followed that up with six more walks -- tying his career high, set three separate times in '20 -- in five innings his very next start. Not exactly a good sign, right?
Well, it seemed to trigger an immediate turnaround, as Ray allowed only one walk over his next six starts (37 1/3 IP), including four in a row without a walk. For a pitcher who had walked 5.1 batters per nine from 2018-20 and had never gone more than two straight outings without issuing a free pass, that's remarkable.
Ray has sliced his walk rate from 17.9 percent to 6.5 percent -- or a whopping 11.5 percentage points, which is the most from 2020-21 by a lot among pitchers to throw at least 50 innings in each season. In fact, it's among the very best year-over-year walk rate improvements this century.
Biggest Season-to-Season BB% Drop since 2000
Minimum 50 IP
Aroldis Chapman: 11.5% from 2011 to 2012
Robbie Ray: 11.4% from 2020 to 2021
LaTroy Hawkins: 10.9% from 2001 to 2002
Craig Kimbrel: 8.1% from 2016 to 2017
Tyler Chatwood: 8.1% from 2018 to 2019
Arthur Rhodes: 8.1% from 1999 to 2000
David Riske: 7.9% from 2002 to 2003
Framber Valdez: 7.8% from 2019 to 2020
Akinori Otsuka: 7.6% from 2005 to 2006
Kazuhiro Sasaki: 7.5% from 2000 to 2001
As you might notice, that is a very reliever-heavy list. The only pitchers to make even one start in the season in which their walk rate dropped that much were Chatwood (five starts in 2019), Valdez (10 starts in 2020) and now Ray. In other words, what he's done in this category is more or less unprecedented by a starting pitcher since 2000.
FAITH IN THE FOUR-SEAMER
So Ray is throwing more pitches in the zone and walking fewer batters, but how is he doing that?
Again, the answer is simple to an extent: He has been throwing his four-seamer almost 60% of the time, which is the highest rate of his career (other than that partial 2014 campaign).
The fastball is the easiest pitch to command for most hurlers, so it tracks that one way to enhance command and control is to throw it more often. It's also notable that the last time Ray threw four-seamers north of 55 percent of the time was in his breakout year of 2017, when he had a 2.89 ERA, a 1.15 WHIP, made the All-Star team and finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting.
This more fastball-heavy approach suggests an element of “here it is, try to hit it” for a lefty who possesses a heater that sits in the mid-90s and can touch 98. At 94.9 miles per hour on average this season, it's tied for the best four-seam velo of his career (with '16), the highest since '17 (94.2 mph) and a full click above last year (93.9 mph).
That also aligns with the fact that Ray's first-pitch strike rate is the best of his career at 61.3 percent, a massive jump from last year's 52.2 percent. He's shown more trust in his fastball, which has regained velo, allowing Ray to throw the pitch more frequently, more accurately and more effectively -- even as the first pitch of an at-bat.
The intriguing aspect here is that Ray has had such success despite limiting his repertoire. In short, he upped his fastball usage at the expense of his curveball. After throwing the deuce nearly 16 percent of the time a year ago -- when batters hit .474 against the offering with a .437 xwOBA -- it's now down to less than 7 percent. That's because between his fastball and his slider, Ray has ...
STUFF THAT GETS STRIKEOUTS
Ray’s ability to rack up strikeouts remains elite, and it always has been, as proven by the fact that he had the highest K total (1,241) through 1,000 career innings in AL/NL history, a total he reached on Aug. 30. Heck, the fact that Ray has the best strikeouts-per-nine rate in MLB history (minimum 1,000 innings) -- ahead of Chris Sale, Yu Darvish, Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer -- provides all the context you need to appreciate this skill.
He also recently struck out 10-plus batters in four straight starts -- tied for the longest run by any pitcher this season and a Blue Jays record, ahead of three separate Roger Clemens streaks from 1997-98, when he won back-to-back Cy Youngs.
To follow up on the earlier idea that Ray is more trusting of his stuff and challenging hitters more, he is getting swings and misses on pitches thrown in the zone a career-high 16.6 percent of the time. That is one of the 10 best rates among starting pitchers this season (minimum 500 pitches thrown in the zone).
As established, Ray's four-seamer arguably has been the biggest key, but his wipeout slider needs to be mentioned here. While Ray's fastball's -22 run value makes it the third-best overall pitch by that metric (tied with Cole’s), his slider’s -10 run value also ranks as a top-50 pitch (minimum 150 PA), thanks to a whiff percentage of 46.2 -- fifth highest for a slider in MLB among starting pitchers.
Highest Slider Whiff% as Starting Pitcher
Minimum 100 swings vs. slider
Jacob deGrom: 58.1%
Dylan Cease: 49.2%
Max Scherzer: 48.2%
Blake Snell: 46.4%
Robbie Ray: 46.2%
Logan Webb: 45.3%
Clayton Kershaw: 43.8%
J.T. Brubaker: 42.3%
Lucas Giolito: 42.2%
Freddy Peralta: 42.0%
A PERFECTLY TIMED TURNAROUND
What does all of this mean for Ray? Well, he's right alongside Cole in the running for the AL Cy Young Award, and that will make his upcoming free agency all the more fascinating this time around. What could his contract look like?
Signing Ray -- who is all but a lock to receive and decline the qualifying offer -- coming off this stellar season very well might take something in the range of nine figures, as long as teams have faith this turnaround is for real.
Can he approach, say, Zack Wheeler’s five-year, $118M deal with the Phillies, considering Wheeler also was a “stuff” guy who had an up-and-down history at the time of his signing? Or how about comping Ray's potential contract to the one inked by a pitcher with a familiar background as a southpaw who relies on a strikeout-inducing slider and used to pitch for the D-backs -- Patrick Corbin, who leveraged a career year in 2018 into a six-year, $140 million pact with the Nationals?
Those estimates might seem lofty, but if Ray does win the Cy Young or finish top three in the voting, then he'll have precedent in his corner. Over the past 10 years, here are the pitchers to finish that high in the voting in their walk year:
Pitcher (Finish in Cy Young voting): Contract Signed
Trevor Bauer (won 2020 NL Cy Young): three years, $102 million (opt-outs after '21 and '22) with Dodgers
Gerrit Cole (finished second in 2019 AL Cy Young): nine years, $324 million (opt-out after '24) with Yankees
Hyun Jin Ryu (finished second in 2019 NL Cy Young): four years, $80 million with Blue Jays
David Price (finished second in 2015 AL Cy Young): seven years, $217 million (opt-out after '18) with Red Sox
Zack Greinke (finished second in 2015 NL Cy Young): six years, $206.5 million with D-backs
While Ray lacks the consistency and pitching pedigree that Cole, Price and Greinke had established at the time of their deals, it seems reasonable that Ryu's $80 million mark might be the floor, especially since Ray is younger than Ryu was and has been much more durable to this point in his career.
A peek at the biggest names among pitchers set to hit the open market this offseason shows Greinke, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman and Carlos Rodón. (Justin Verlander and Noah Syndergaard are in another bucket coming off Tommy John surgery.)
Ray's free agency could rival that of Rodón, a lefty with high-octane stuff who returned on a one-year deal to the team with which he ended a disappointing 2020, only to set himself up nicely by putting together a career year. Sound familiar?
Before that, though, comes Ray's attempt to pull off an upset by capturing the AL Cy Young Award over Cole and pitch the surging Blue Jays to the postseason, possibly even ahead of Cole's Yankees.
If Ray finishes strong, both outcomes just might happen.