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FA Spotlight: Robbie Ray

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A look at one of the top starting pitchers on the market

Toronto Blue Jays v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Robbie Ray has been around a while. My apparently wrong impression of Ray was that he was an unheralded prospect who came up in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, exceeded expectations and was an all-around solid, but not great, starting pitcher for the DBacks. This remained true up until last season when he was traded to the Blue Jays. Classic developmental story. But it’s the wrong story.

Ray was actually drafted by the Washington Nationals, way back in 2010, in the 12th round. He was drafted out of Brentwood High School in Tennessee. He made it all the way to AA before the Nationals traded him. At the time of the trade, he was the #97 prospect according to Baseball America. He was paired with young reliever Ian Krol and a shot in the dark 25-year-old Steve Lombardozzi, who had 700 bad MLB PAs at that point but was a decent prospect in the past to get those chances. Ray was clearly the draw. They were sent to the Tigers for Doug Fister.

He lasted a year with the Tigers. He had a not great season in AAA and a very bad first 28.2 IP (8.16 ERA) in the majors. But he was 22, and that’s not unusual. Over the offseason, he was traded in a three-team trade. He and 19-year-old Domingo Leyba went to the Diamondbacks. They sent Didi Gregorious to the Yankees. And the Yankees sent Shane Greene to the Tigers. So that’s an interesting trade.

He was pretty much instantly the Robbie Ray you’re familiar with. He spent 9 games in AAA, earning a promotion to the big leagues and in 23 starts, was a 2.3 fWAR pitcher. Then had back-to-back 3.3 fWAR seasons. Being at Chase Field, he had a bit of a home run problem which prevented him from taking that next step. Well, he never really figured out that problem. He had just a 0.9 fWAR season in 24 starts in his fourth year (3.93 ERA though) and then had a career high HR/FB% the season after that.. and still ended up being a 2.3 fWAR season.

Then the 2020 season happened. All of his problems became so much worse. His walk rate jumped to 17.9% - he always had an issue with walks, but nowhere near this bad. His home run problems stayed a problem and he had a 6.62 ERA and 6.50 FIP. He actually got traded in the middle of the “season.” He was traded for Travis Bergen, a guy they immediately gave back to the Blue Jays for cash February of 2021. His numbers improved at Toronto, but were still not great in 2020 - 4.79 ERA, 5.32 FIP.

The Blue Jays signed him to a one year deal and their park was even worse than Chase Field. On Fangraphs they have a park factor of 104 (100 = average, works the same as OPS+), which is the 4th least favorable place to play for a pitcher. But it’s not because of homers. They actually are a somewhat significantly worse place to hit homers than most parks, including Busch Stadium. But outside of the Rockies, no park is easier to hit a single and it’s prone to many, many triples.

This does not really explain his 2021 numbers very well. His HR/9 was above his career average (though below his last couple seasons). His HR/FB% was... essentially his career average. And despite a career .313 BABIP going into 2021, his BABIP for the Blue Jays was .268. That seems backwards. But his real big improvement was his control. He just stopped walking hitters. He had a career 11 BB% - and actually he hadn’t had a BB% that low since 2017, so even that is misleading. But in 2021, his walk rate fell to 6.9%.

So when deciding whether or not to resign Robbie Ray, the question comes down to: are you buying his walk rate? That’s pretty much it. Ignore the 2.84 ERA. That is a mirage. He somehow had a 90.1 LOB%, which means 90.1% of runners were stranded on the basepaths with him on the mound. Average is 75%. His career is 76.9%, just a little better than average thanks to his strikeouts. There’s little reason to buy the BABIP either. Look at his season-by-season BABIPs and they’re all over the place. He’s actually had a BABIP lower than .268 before (by one point) and it wasn’t any more real then either.

I also wouldn’t hold out too much hope he’d get a boost from playing in Busch Stadium either, as crazy as that sounds. It’s harder to hit a home run in Rogers Centre than Busch Stadium, though barely. And... his HR numbers did not even kind of improve. Allowing bombs is just the price he pays for how he pitches. I think it would be foolish to expect that to improve.

So the walks. Are they for real? As most projections systems would, Steamer picks the middle ground. It projects for a 9% BB rate which he last did in 2016 prior to last season. I would guess ZiPS won’t be much different. It also projects him to drop his HR rate, buuuut I’m not buying that one. I’m not seeing why it would be. His GB% is just about the same as it was in 2019, so that’s not improving. His HR/FB% is at his career levels. I don’t think you can assume that improves either. So I’m taking the under on that 3.6 WAR by Steamer.

ZiPS would be more helpful on innings, which I am curious about. Steamer has 186, which he has done exactly once in his career - 2021. His next highest inning total was 174, so yeah that 186 number is bonkers. But not Steamer’s fault. They always assume full health on these things. Not to mention if you’re actually projecting him to walk more batters, he’s not pitching as many innings anyway. So that 3.6 WAR can literally just be ignored. With the homers and the innings, I’m choosing to look at him as a 3 WAR pitcher. (170 is an optimistic, but reasonable guess in my opinion)

What does this mean for his contract? Well it probably means I wouldn’t sign him. But a four-year deal for a 3 WAR pitcher is 4 years, $81 million. That seems reasonable. I checked Fangraphs top 50 free agents post and I would not touch him with a ten foot pole if Ben Clemens in his guess of 4 years, $112 million is correct, but I’d be all over the crowdsourced median number of 4 years, $71 million. (The average crowdsource number was 4.75 years for $106.5 million, which means they think Ben’s number is right... over 5 years.)

I’ll be honest. I expected to be more in favor of signing him. It all depends on his market. And really how for real those walk numbers are. I can’t help but shake the feeling that he’s going to be back to the 10% BB rate guy at some point in the future, possibly next year but definitely within range of a four year deal. And the Cardinals have better data than me on how for real it is. But as it stands, I think they would be insane to sign him to Ben’s deal.

If for whatever reason, the market decides a three year deal is appropriate, that number shakes out to 3 years, $67.5 million. I really have no idea what the market will be though. Feels like anything could happen. I guess we’ll see how much the market buys into his new and improved walk rate soon enough.