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A tale of two Robbie Rays

It was the best of Ray; it was the worst of Ray.

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Arizona Diamondbacks v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Five starts into the season, and the Arizona DiamondbacksRobbie Ray has been abysmal. He’s sporting a 7.68 FIP, an 18.5 percent walk rate, and a -0.5 RA9-WAR. Ray has always had command issues, but the rate at which he’s issuing free passes this season is downright Chatwoodian. Before the season, Ray said he wouldn’t opt out of the season because in a contract year, he “need[s] to pitch this year.” At first blush, it looks like Ray has hurt his value in free agency.

Of course, this is just five starts we’re talking about here. The season is a third of the way through, but in a normal season, we wouldn’t even be out of April. If we’re evaluating performance based on results, we’re going to get into trouble. Mike Trout is still 25th on the fWAR leaderboard, and Donovan Solano is still hitting .403 with a 176 wRC+, so none of this matters.

Even if prospective suitors will use Ray’s nightmarish start to lowball him, they’re going to be interested in Ray because of what he’s changed. A couple of rough outings mean less for what Ray will do in the future than some of his underlying improvements.

Most notably, his fastball has undergone an intriguing transformation. After a dip in velocity last season, Ray is back to pre-2019 levels. His average fastball is 1.6 mph faster than it was last season, and he has regained the ability to hit 97.

Brooks Baseball

Ray getting his velocity back is one thing, but that’s not all that’s different. Ray has also added over 200 rpm on his spin rate which took him from 2257 to 2478 rpm. That’s the difference of going from a little below average to elite. In 2019, his fastball spin ranked in the 46th percentile, but now he’s up to 92nd.

That extra spin has mostly translated to added horizontal movement. Per Baseball Savant, Ray’s fastball is moving nearly three inches more than it did last year, and it’s moving three inches more than the league average fastball thrown at a similar velocity and release point. This is the most life Ray’s fastball has had since 2016.

Baseball Savant

Ray is taking a page out of the Lucas Giolito playbook. In 2020, Giolito shortened his arm action and the results were better spin and better velocity. Ray is doing the same thing, and he’s got the better spin and velocity.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t led to an increase in whiff rate yet. If anything, it’s been the opposite. A 5.2 swinging strike rate on the fastball would be the lowest since his brief debut in 2014. More movement and more velo usually doesn’t mean more contact, but location still matters. Ray has never been a command maven, and this year he’s been especially wild.

Overall, Ray’s zone percentage is 35.4 percent which would be the lowest mark of his career, and it’s the fourth-lowest in the majors this year (min. 20 IP). The biggest driver of that overall change is this slider. Ray hasn’t been throwing his slider for strikes, and hitters aren’t chasing as often. Ray’s fastball command has also been worse. Only 50.2 percent of Ray’s fastballs have been thrown in the strike zone.

Baseball Savant

Not only that, when Ray does throw the fastball in the zone, he’s catching too much of the plate. His edge percentage on fastballs is only 37.8. It was 49.3 percent last season. Hitters are getting a lot more hittable pitches or easy takes.

Robbie Ray Fastball Location

Year Total Heart Shadow Chase and Waste
Year Total Heart Shadow Chase and Waste
2019 1307 26.5% 49.3% 24.3%
2020 241 31.5% 37.8% 30.7%
Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Again, Ray has only made five starts the most promising of which coming on Sunday. Ray threw five innings of one run ball, but he also walked six. Maybe he can get back to his usual level of wildness or maybe he can’t find the same command with his new mechanics. Not all changes have to be good. For now, the improvements to the fastball are enticing enough to keep trying at least a while longer.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.