This lefty could become hot name on trade market

December 22nd, 2019

What kind of a pitcher is Robbie Ray?

It’s a difficult question, but one that could be on many teams’ minds right now, in the wake of the D-backs landing . With the left-hander signing a five-year contract, speculation immediately escalated that Arizona would consider a subsequent trade of Ray, a fellow southpaw who is set to become a free agent after the 2020 season.

For a club targeting a one-year rotation stopgap with an affordable salary, a solid track record (107 career ERA+), and some upside, the 28-year-old Ray is an intriguing option. But just how intriguing depends on the point of view.

So with the group of available free-agent starters dwindling, here is a closer look at a pitcher who could become a hot name on the trade market.

The good: Take a big whiff

The best skill a pitcher can possess is missing bats. And few are as adept as Ray.

While he was only a 12th-round pick by the Nationals in 2010, never appeared high on prospect lists, and doesn’t throw especially hard, Ray is difficult to hit. Over the past three seasons, opponents have come up empty on one-third of their swings against him, a rate unsurpassed by any other regular starting pitcher in that span.

Highest whiff rate, 2017-19
Min. 2,000 swings (142 pitchers)
1-T) Robbie Ray: 33.3%
1-T) : 33.3%
3) : 33.2%
4) : 32.8%
5) : 31.7%

That’s impressive company, to say the least.

Ray’s four-seam fastball velocity has dropped from 94.9 mph in 2016 to 92.4 mph last season, and the pitch does not generate a ton of misses. But Ray continues to ramp up his breaking ball usage (47% in '19), throwing a slider and curveball that both produce whiffs in droves. In each of the past three seasons, both offerings have featured whiff rates of at least 44%, and only former D-backs teammate has notched more total swings and misses on breaking balls.

Ray is able to finish off hitters with any of those three pitches, though. Since 2017, he ranks 14th in the Majors in total fastball strikeouts, and 11th in total breaking ball Ks.

Highest K%, 2017-19
Min. 300 IP (115 pitchers)

  1. Chris Sale: 36.7%
  2. Max Scherzer: 34.7%
  3. : 32.4%
  4. : 32.0%

5) Robbie Ray: 31.9%
6) : 30.9%

Strikeouts aren’t everything. Yet one could make a convincing case that the five pitchers joining Ray on the above list have been the five best starters of the past three years. In fact, they form the top five in FanGraphs pitching WAR during that time, and five of the top eight in Baseball Reference WAR.

Ray ranks 48th and 39th, respectively. That’s a useful arm, to be sure, but hardly a star on the same, elite level.

Some good fortune on batted balls seemed to fuel a breakout, All-Star campaign in 2017, when Ray went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA (but a 3.72 FIP). He hasn’t maintained that level since (4.17 ERA), though, and it’s hard not to wonder why Ray’s overall results haven’t been better, given how difficult he is to hit.

The bad: When they hit it, it flies

One reason is rather obvious. Ray pairs his high K-rates with high walk rates -- over 10% in three straight seasons. Ray’s 11.6% rate since 2017 trails only and among pitchers with at least 300 innings, and stands in stark contrast to the likes of Cole, deGrom, Sale, Scherzer, and Verlander. Each of those aces has a walk rate below 7% in that span, well below the MLB average (8.5%).

All of these free passes are a separator, but what stands out even more is what happens when opponents overcome Ray’s bat-missing tendencies and actually make contact.

When it comes to balls in play, pitchers are at the mercy of defensive positioning and execution, not to mention good, old-fashioned luck. But the quality of contact has a big effect on outcomes, too. In 2019, MLB hitters posted a .223 average on batted balls that were not hit hard (below a 95-mph exit velocity), .541 on all hard-hit balls, and .816 on barrels (factoring in launch angle). The split is even more extreme in terms of slugging.

Some pitchers -- such as crafty veterans and -- have made a living off their consistent ability to induce weak contact. Ray has been the opposite.

Highest hard-hit rate allowed, 2017-19
Min. 750 batted balls (147 pitchers)
1-T) : 41.6%
1-T) : 41.6%
3) : 41.0%
4) Robbie Ray: 40.7%
5) : 40.0%

Ray’s 8.6% barrel rate in that span is tied for ninth-highest in the same group, as he also allows a high percentage of fly balls and line drives. And while the lefty’s hard-hit rate dropped from 41.6% to 38.7% last season, his barrel rate actually rose from 8.7% to 10.7% -- one of the highest in the game.

No other starter exhibits such an extreme combination of whiffs and hard contact. Only a few (Bieber, , ) have come anywhere close in recent years.

Between all the strikeouts and walks, only about 13% of Ray’s pitches over the past three seasons have been put in play. That’s the lowest among regular starters. But when the ball does get put in play against Ray, opponents have slugged .626 against him in that span -- among the highest in MLB. Instead of sharing space with the Coles, Scherzers and Verlanders of the world, Ray fits in there with Moore, , and .

The future

Pitching is scarce, and plenty of contenders need more of it. For playoff hopefuls that so far haven’t acquired one of the offseason’s top starters -- such as the Angels, Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, or Twins -- Ray could be a nice alternative or consolation prize.

The question, once again, is what type of pitcher is Ray in the view of such clubs? Is he a finished product, or a potentially lucrative project?

If Ray’s tendencies toward spotty control and damaging contact continue to counteract his enviable bat-missing ability, he’s still a useful arm. If some new team can find a way to cut down the walks and/or barrels, unleashing the full potential of his strikeout-heavy repertoire, there could be a top-of-the-rotation piece lurking.

As the calendar heads toward 2020 and the trade market intensifies, it’s a challenge worth considering.