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The “inside” scoop on Robbie Ray

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Robbie Ray has trouble with righties, but he’s finding ways to work around that flaw.

Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY

By now, you’re Iikely familiar with the foibles of Robbie Ray. Everyone from BtBS’s Ryan Freemyer to ESPN’s Sam Miller to FanGraphs’s August Fagerstrom has written about Arizona’s strange southpaw; I’ll provide a quick (by which I mean very lengthy) summary. Poor command and thunderous contact allowed has stifled his success despite strong strikeout totals and an ability to induce popups.

In 2016, his strikeout rate was fifth-best among qualified starters at 28.1 percent — a mark that tied him with Justin Verlander. His strikeout rate plus infield fly ball percent (IFFB/TBF) slotted him sixth, which is important, because those are the two outcomes of a plate appearance that most favor the pitcher (since they’re the most likely to result in an out).

Behold! MLB’s strike out-plus-popup rate leaders, 2016 (qualified starters only).

Automatic out leaders

Player K% IFFB% K+IFFB%
Player K% IFFB% K+IFFB%
Jose Fernandez 34.3 1.4 35.7
Max Scherzer 31.5 3.8 35.3
Justin Verlander 28.1 3.4 31.5
Noah Syndergaard 29.3 1.3 30.6
Madison Bumgarner 27.5 3.0 30.5
Robbie Ray 28.1 2.1 30.2
Drew Pomeranz 26.5 2.7 29.2
Chris Archer 27.4 1.6 29.0
Marco Estrada 22.8 5.4 28.2
Michael Pineda 27.4 0.8 28.2
K% = K/TBF; IFFB% = IFFB/TBF

Look at the names on that list, and it’s immediately clear why Robbie Ray is interesting.

Of course, once we work in his walks (to reflect his iffy control) and add a column for exit velocity (to reflect the hard contact he’s given up), the whole picture comes into focus. It reminds us why we don’t immediately conjure up Robbie Ray’s name when we think of the best pitchers in baseball — though to be fair, the company he holds is still impressive.

Automatic out leaders minus walks

Player K-BB+IFFB% Exit Velocity
Player K-BB+IFFB% Exit Velocity
Max Scherzer 29.0 88.4
Jose Fernandez 28.2 89.9
Justin Verlander 25.2 88.4
Noah Syndergaard 24.9 87.9
Madison Bumgarner 24.6 89.1
Chris Sale 23.0 89.2
Danny Duffy 22.3 90.2
Rick Porcello 21.5 88.9
Drew Smyly 21.4 88.5
Corey Kluber 21.3 87.0
Chris Archer 21.2 90.7
Michael Pineda 21.2 90.3
David Price 21.1 88.3
Robbie Ray 21.0 90.7
Kenta Maeda 20.7 86.0
Jon Lester 20.5 87.8
Kevin Gausman 20.2 89.4
Drew Pomeranz 19.9 88.6
Johnny Cueto 19.8 88.4
Jon Gray 19.4 88.7

So Ray is intriguing, and it’s hard not to notice that he’s shown a certain flexibility in the way he goes about attacking hitters. Peep his usage rates broken down by season (from FanGraphs).

Pitch Usage

Year Four seam% Two seam% Slider% Curveball% Change-up%
Year Four seam% Two seam% Slider% Curveball% Change-up%
2014 60.5 2.2 3.5 5.3 27.1
2015 62.6 9.4 20.1 0.2 7.7
2016 55.7 16.1 22.3 0.0 5.9

Comparing his usage patterns to the outcomes for his primary pitches, we can see that Ray (or someone advising Ray) has his finger on the pulse of what works for him and what doesn’t.

Ray arsenal

Split Ray FF MLB FF Ray SI MLB SI Ray SL MLB SL Ray CH MLB CH
Split Ray FF MLB FF Ray SI MLB SI Ray SL MLB SL Ray CH MLB CH
Velocity 94.7 93.1 94.5 92.4 84.9 84.8 87.0 84.1
LHP Horizontal movement 7.6 6.1 10.5 9.0 1.7 -0.9 7.9 8.1
LHP Vertical movement 10.0 8.6 7.2 5.6 1.8 0.8 6.1 4.7
Whiff% 10.1% 8.8% 9.6% 6.6% 20.9% 16.7% 10.1% 16.1%
GB% 43.0% 38.5% 49.1% 54.1% 58.4% 46.1% 40.0% 50.1%
PU% 8.6% 8.8% 2.8% 4.2% 3.4% 7.8% 3.3% 6.4%
Spin 2277 2264 2250 2156 2152 2285 1928 1753
Exit Velocity 90.8 90.5 91.9 90.6 88.2 87.1 92.1 86.6
Whiffs are represented as a fraction of total pitches. GB% & PU% are per total BIP.

By tailoring his arsenal to maximize the usage of his most effective pitches — his sinker and slider — not only has Ray increased his K rate every year, he’s also upped the rate at which he’s induced ground balls, even breaching the MLB-average threshold last year.

The hard contact, however, is something he’s still working on — especially against right-handed hitters.

Exit velocity allowed

Year Exit velocity allowed to RHH Exit velocity allowed to LHH
Year Exit velocity allowed to RHH Exit velocity allowed to LHH
2015 92.0 85.4
2016 91.6 87.5

So, that’s the deal with Robbie Ray. Why should we care? What has he done differently?

As we touched on above, opposite-handed hitters have always punished Ray. From his debut in May 2014, up to 2016’s All-Star Break, they racked up a .354 wOBA in 830 plate appearances against him. For reference, a .354 wOBA is exactly what Victor Martinez produced over the 2014-16 seasons. However, over his last 14 starts in 2016, Ray held righties to a .314 wOBA, which, last year, is smack dab between Scooter Gennett (.315) and Starlin Castro (.313).

It’s basically impossible to see it in the aggregate data, but Ray actually made a change last year against righties that worked fairly well. You see, without a “true” third offering (he reduced his changeup usage significantly last year) or a sizable velocity gap between pitches to keep opponents honest, he’s been searching for something to aid in vanquishing opposite-handed hitters; halfway through 2016, he came onto that something.

Baseball Savant

This is the strike zone. The inner third comprises zones 1, 4, and 7, with 11 and 13 representing the space just off the plate. In the first half, Ray pitched to these zones against right-handed hitters 35.4 percent of the time. In the second half, spanning 14 starts, versus righties, he pitched to these specific zones 54.8 percent of the time.

Splitting the season into halves, using the All-Star Break as our dividing line, we discover that no starter in baseball shifted the location of their pitches against right-handed hitters toward the inside third of the zone more than Robbie Ray — and it’s not even close (min. 35 innings pitched in each half).

Inside approach to RHH

Player 1st half % 2nd half % Percent Change
Player 1st half % 2nd half % Percent Change
Robbie Ray 35.4 54.8 55.0
Vince Velasquez 39.6 58.2 46.9
Ervin Santana 33.9 43.4 27.9
Dallas Keuchel 37.1 46.9 26.2
Steven Matz 37.1 46.8 26.1

When accounting for all zones, Ray allowed a 91.6-mph exit velocity to right-handed hitters, but on pitches placed on the inner third, that number dropped to 87.5. Furthermore — and somewhat intuitively, really — inside and up is where popups are generated. If you’re curious, here’s how popups were distributed against RHH throughout the zone.

Across MLB, zones 1, 4, 7, 11, and 13 accounted for 50.8 percent of all popups hit by right-handed hitters. With Ray targeting those zones more often, that means he’ll garner even more weak contact.

So what does this mean for Robbie Ray? Well, it’s another small piece to the puzzle. But now he can generate whiffs, induce popups and get ground balls, and he may have figured out one way that allows him to restrain damage against righties.

Now, I may have painted a picture that if Robbie Ray can figure out righties, he’d be brilliant — though that would be false. While it’d be fair to assume that his fastball/slider combination should be devastating to lefties, his baseball card numbers are a bit worse than league average against same-siders (though these numbers appear in context-neutral form).

vs LHH

2016 TBF K% BB% K-BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA ERA
2016 TBF K% BB% K-BB% AVG OBP SLG wOBA ERA
Robbie Ray vs LHH 185 31.9 5.9 25.9 .250 .304 .380 .298 4.40
NL LHP vs LHH 6987 22.6 7.8 14.8 .236 .309 .360 .294 3.71

Of course, his FIP against lefties is a strong 2.26, and his 4.40 ERA (and 2.14 ERA-FIP, the largest disparity for any southpaw against left-handed hitters with a minimum of 100 batters faced) should regress quite a bit in the right direction. In fact, regardless of handedness of opponent, all ERA estimators saw him as a solid contributor in 2016 — 3.76 FIP, 3.45 xFIP, 3.88 DRA — and with the K-BB foundation he has, it’s easy to see why.

The projection systems foresee a solid campaign from the 25-year-old southpaw in 2017, with ZiPS even throwing a Cliff Lee comp on him (and in fact, they do share some resemblances in the early parts of their careers)!

2017 Projections

System GS IP HR K BB ERA DRA or FIP WAR
System GS IP HR K BB ERA DRA or FIP WAR
PECOTA 26 148 2/3 17 169 55 3.71 3.89 2.2
Steamer 29 168 18 189 65 3.57 3.54 3.4
ZiPs 32 176 1/3 21 215 68 3.73 3.53 3.6

I’ll be watching Ray pitch this spring and scouring information for what he’s working on. Maybe he’ll be reinventing his changeup (again), or maybe he’ll be toying with multiple arm angles like some pitchers have benefited from (as my colleague, Zach Crizer, highlighted here), and/or, hopefully, he’ll be honing his command — especially after his first spring outing (17 pitches: 5 strikes, 12 balls).

But if you get the chance to watch him, you’ll undoubtedly see flashes of, well, this.

I hesitate to call it brilliance, because that word should be reserved for very few. However, it is irrefutably nasty. That being said, in this age of information, tiers of distinction are much more fluid, and Robbie Ray has seemingly shown a willingness to work with new information. I’m not saying brilliance is in his future, but people have done more with less.

*****

Mark Davidson is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him and send him bat flip gifs at @NtflxnRichHill