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Robbie Ray: 2021 reclamation project

Robbie Ray had an awful start to his 2020 campaign, but after abandoning some mechanical changes he carried into the season, he was much closer to his old self

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The 2020 season looked to be an important one for hard-throwing southpaw Robbie Ray. The 28 year old was entering his final year before free agency, having been one of the more effective starting pitchers from 2015-19. His then team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, were a fringe playoff contender anticipating a step forward from an 85 win campaign in 2019, when they signed Madison Bumgarner and traded for Starling Marte.

Ray, armed with a new and what he hoped to be improved pitching motion, hoped to be an integral part of the winning product with a potentially lucrative trip to free agency to follow. In practice, however, things did not go as planned. The Diamondbacks finished the 2020 season as a last place team, and Ray found himself a new home after getting dealt to the Blue Jays at the trade deadline, and then signing a one year deal early in the offseason to remain in Toronto—for a mere $8 million.

The Jays were not looking for Ray to make them immediately better. To that point, he was pitching to a 7.84 ERA/7.30 FIP/6.41 xFIP. Rather, they were betting on his upside. Though his run prevention had been, to that point, not good, a few things remained encouraging. His fourseam fastball velocity was up to 93.9 mph from 92.4 in 2019; a career low. Additionally, despite the increased amount of runs scored at Ray’s expense, he largely maintained his ability to miss bats. What hurt him the most this past season was his absurdly high walk rate.

Robbie Ray 2015-2020

Year mph K/9 K% BB% WAR
Year mph K/9 K% BB% WAR
2015 94.1 8.39 21.8% 9.0% 2.3
2016 94.9 11.25 28.1% 9.2% 3.3
2017 94.2 12.11 32.8% 10.7% 3.3
2018 93.6 12.01 31.4% 13.3% 0.9
2019 92.4 12.13 31.5% 11.2% 2.4
2020 93.7 11.85 27.1% 17.9% -0.4

While Ray has never been known to be the type of pitcher to limit walks, a 17.6% clip is clearly atypical, even for him. Ironically, the changes he made to his mechanics during the offseason, specifically the more concise delivery and shorter arm action, were meant to help him throw more strikes, not less. Other pitchers have tried this with more success, including Trevor Bauer, Lucas Giolito, and Pete Fairbanks—the idea being that short arm action helps a pitcher get his arm on time at front foot strike.

In the video (above), we have a side by side comparison of Ray in 2019 on the left and 2020 on the right. A few things we notice right away include his feet starting closer together, as well as the arms coming overhead into leg lift. Slowed down (below), we can see the shorter arm action I alluded to earlier. Prior to the 2020 season, Ray featured a longer arm swing before switching to a quicker path from his glove to his release point.

But after a start in which the results trended in the opposite direction, Ray completely abandoned the changes on August 26—right before he was traded—and while he wasn’t exactly lights out after the change, the results were markedly better. The walks are still a problem, but it appears that Ray was somewhat able to harness his old ways.

Robbie Ray before and after

Time ERA FIP xFIP K/9 K% BB%
Time ERA FIP xFIP K/9 K% BB%
Before 8.33 7.83 6.6 11.69 26.1% 18.7%
After 4.74 5.06 4.98 12.04 28.2% 17.1%

Side by side, the deliveries are nearly identical. Ray has his wide stance back, as well as his longer arm path.

If Robbie Ray’s early season troubles were indeed caused by his failure to get a good feel for his new mechanics, and he is able to recapture his previous form, then the Blue Jays grabbed a solid No. 3 starter for the far below retail price of $8 million. At worst, he can at least provide league average-ish innings in bulk for an interesting Jays team that looks to compete for a playoff spot once again in 2021.

Brian Menéndez is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as a senior writer for DRaysBay. Additionally, he has been featured in The Hardball Times. You can find Brian on Twitter at @briantalksbsb.