In 2020, Robbie Ray was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. The frustrating left-hander once looked primed to become an ace, but walks and home run issues derailed a once-promising career. After a change of scenery moving to Toronto, the numbers improved slightly but he still looked like a shell of his former self. However, thus far 2021 has been a completely different story. Ray has been a completely different pitcher, with a career-best walk rate helping to lead him to a 3.42 ERA. However, there have certainly been some red flags, his K% has dropped from its career peaks of 31% down to 28%. This is still well above average however so he should be able to survive at this level if the low walk totals remain. Additionally, he is still allowing an insane number of home runs and tons of loud contact. However, with the walk numbers dropping mightily he is able to limit the damage of those homers something he could never do in the past.
FIP sees Ray as a high-4s ERA pitcher while other ERA estimators all over the map with the Blue Jay. StuffERA actually has Ray at 4.27 which is actually similar to how it graded him last season but is behind the peaks of his career where he was in the mid-3s.
Any discussion of Robbie Ray has to begin with strikeouts. This has always been his biggest strength and unsurprisingly, he is still able to generate them in bunches. The more interesting trends occur when we dive a little bit deeper into the numbers. As I stated in the open, Ray actually has seen his K% drop a bit from the heights of his success. However, his Swinging Strike Rate is at an all-time high. This coincides actually with a small drop in xWhiff meaning the increased swinging strike rate is due to his pitches playing much better as opposed to improved ability to locate. Actually, despite the improvements in walk rate, Ray actually grades out significantly worse in rfCommand this season.
This may seem counterintuitive, but Ray actually posted great location-based numbers despite the insanely high walk totals throughout his career. The biggest area of command “regression” for Ray has been in-zone swing rates.
After consistently posting, in-zone xSwings around 65% Ray has seen that figure jump to just below 70%. This idea and the chart displayed below actually highlight why Ray’s command can be seen as worse.
This is Ray’s fastball locations over an expected swing rate chart. As you can see from a quick perusal of the charts, Ray has been targeting the heart of the plate with his fastball so far. This has allowed him to remain in the zone much more often than he has in the past. However, this leads to tons of swings at extremely hittable pitches. Ray’s in-zone swing rate is at a career-high and has led to a career-low called strike rate. This is the main reason why despite the massive swinging strike rate jump, Ray has not seen the strikeouts come with it. This is an extremely dangerous way to live and if the swing and miss numbers on the fastball regress at all, Ray could be in for some serious regression.
Overall, this is a really talented pitcher who has found a new way to succeed by attacking the zone and hoping the stuff can take over. He is also a fantastic example of why command and control are not one and the same. I drafted Ray across a number of different leagues this year and have never been able to quit the big stuff and upside he possesses. I am hoping that this newfound hit it if you can approach can work, but for now, keep riding the hot streak and consider sitting Ray when he faces high contact offenses.