When you think about high strikeout pitchers, it’s typically synonymous with whom you think of when asked about the league’s top pitchers. Just look at this season’s leaders in strikeouts per nine innings: Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard, Robbie Ray, Clayton Kershaw—it’s a list riddled with aces. Well, except one. Why doesn’t Ray suppress runs the same way the rest of these guys do?
As with most questions in baseball, this is one with a multi-part answer. The first, and perhaps most obvious, part of that answer is he walks too many people. Of those top six, only Ray’s 3.32 walks per nine innings (BB/9) is higher than the league average for starting pitchers of 2.96 BB/9. That alone, however, should not preclude him from success. Since 2000, there have been nine qualified seasons from pitchers with at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings (Ray currently sits at 10.89) and a strikeout-to-walk ratio between three and four (Ray currently sits at 3.29). The pitchers in all nine of those seasons had an ERA+ of 114 or better and eight of the nine were at least 120. Ray, on the other hand, is at just 98. Something else must be happening here.
It also appears, when the result is something other than a strikeout, Ray has had far worse results than his peers. Take a look at his BABIP and home run rates compared to the rest of the top six strikeout artists from this season:
He’s allowed more hits on balls in play (BABIP) and more home runs per fly ball (HR/FB) than any other pitcher on this list. On the surface, this tells us he’s been unlucky. The idea of bad luck is supported by his 3.62 FIP, 3.40 xFIP, and 3.55 SIERA, all of which are significantly better than his raw ERA of 4.40.
Is it too simplistic to chalk everything up to luck, though? While BABIP and HR/FB certainly have an element of luck to them, they also have an element of skill. Pitchers who allow more hard contact are naturally going to allow more hits and home runs. Normally, high-strikeout pitchers also don’t allow very much hard contact because of their swing-and-miss stuff. That isn’t the case with Ray. Check out how much hard contact he’s allowed compared to those other five pitchers:
That’s a significant difference in how many balls are being hit hard. Four of those pitchers—Scherzer, Strasburg, Syndergaard, and Kershaw—are in the top 20 in hard-hit rate, which is what you’d expect from pitchers who generate a lot of swings and misses. Ray, on the other hand, is all the way down in a tie for 80th among 86 qualified starters.
We’ve not seen such extreme splits—a top-five strikeout rate paired with a hard-hit rate above 35 percent—since Johan Santana in 2007. That 2007 season was a clear outlier for Santana, as his 37.5 percent hard-hit rate was more than 10 percentage points higher than his career hard-hit rate of 26.5 percent and was his only season allowing above 30 percent hard contact outside of his injury-plagued 2012 when he was clearly not the same pitcher. It was also the highest ERA of his career among his eight seasons with 150 or more innings pitched. What all of this means for Ray is that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be able to maintain such a high strikeout rate with such a high hard-hit rate. Something has to give here. Which will it be?
To attempt to figure this out, let’s take a look at Ray’s career to date. What we’re most interested in, of course, are his strikeout and hard-hit rates, but let’s also include age, innings pitched, and whiff rate for additional context:
This, quite frankly, does not paint a much clearer picture. We see a pitcher who has significantly increased his strikeout and swing-and-miss totals each season, but who has not induced any weaker contact. On one hand, the lack of a decrease in quality contact would suggest we’re about to see his strikeout totals take a tumble. On the other hand, the fact that we’ve seen a pitcher nearly double his whiff and strikeout rates from his age 22 to 24 seasons suggests we’re seeing legitimate development from a young pitcher.
One of these things is probably true. The other is probably not. Is Ray about to blossom into one of the league’s top pitchers with an elite strikeout rate? Or will his stuff stay hittable as he, along with his strikeout rate, plunges back into mediocrity? Perhaps he’s going to be the rare pitcher who breaks all the rules and keeps on doing what he’s doing? Stay tuned to find out.
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Ryan Freemyer is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. He also writes for Purple Row, SB Nation's Colorado Rockies blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @RFreemyer.