Arizona Diamondbacks’ LHP Robbie Ray is off to an uncharacteristically bad start through six games pitched. The timing could not be worse for Ray who is an unrestricted free agent at season end. Let’s dig down and see if we can help Ray bounce back.
LHP Robbie Ray has always been a solid and consistent pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks. With the exception of 2018, his fWAR totals have followed a relatively narrow band from 2.3 to 3.3. That makes it all the more puzzling that Ray, who will be a free agent at the end of the year, has pitched so poorly out of the gate. Ray has managed 27 innings with an abysmal 8.33 ERA and a not much better 7.77 FIP. There’s still time for Ray to revert back to form albeit much less time given the shortened season.
Starting at the surface level, there are a few obvious things that explain Ray’s struggles starting with his command. Ray walk rate has ballooned this season to a career high 18.2% compared to a career rate of 11%. Those extra walks are talking away from his strikeouts which are down 5% from last season. Last season, Ray was a top 15 pitcher by K-BB% at 20.2% comparable to Clayton Kershaw and former teammate Patrick Corbin. This season, that same figure sits at 7.5% which, if Ray had enough innings to qualify, puts him in the company of Dylan Cease and Randy Dobnak.
Another concern is that hitters are teeing off against Ray as his exit velocity and fly ball rate are at career highs. Ray has never been an expert at suppressing hitter velocity, but at 92.5 EV, that figure puts him in the bottom 5% of the entire league.
Pitchers can survive giving up hard contact as long as they manage that contact however, Ray’s ground ball rate has cratered under 20% and his fly ball rate is approaching 60% (!!!). Put differently, the balls are coming off the bat like Aaron Judge with the xSLG of Freddie Freeman. This is the worst case scenario for a pitcher and that’s what has unfolded for Ray.
We’ve identified top line what is wrong with Ray now what can he do to fix it. One meaningful difference is that Ray is falling behind too many counts. His first pitch strike% has dropped nearly 15% down to 45% so Ray is working in many more hitter friendly counts. Hitters are swinging less at Ray’s offerings less (38% vs career 44%), especially on pitches out of the zone (25% vs career 30%).
The most important change for Ray is where he throws his pitches. While Ray’s 2020 pitch mix isn’t meaningfully different from his career it’s the location of his pitches that are giving him problems. Compare Ray’s 2019 pitching chart to 2020’s. While the sample isn’t large, it is clear Ray has been targeting the bottom of the zone in 2020. With Ray’s swing and miss arsenal, he should revert back to targeting the higher edges of the zone which will also help him get ahead in the count. This is especially true given that most hitters are hitting more fly balls.
Coincidentally, the Dbacks hired a new pitching coach from the Giants in Matt Herges so there may be some tension between what works for Ray and what Herges pitching approach is. Herges came from spacious Oracle Park where fly balls go to die so his philosophy may not be as effective in hitter friendly Arizona.
The news isn’t all bad for Ray though as he is averaging a healthy 94.1 on his fastball which is a 1.7 mph increase from last year. That velocity puts Ray in the top thirty starters in all of baseball. That number is more impressive when you consider Ray is a lefty.
Robbie Ray hasn’t been himself in the COVID shortened 2020 season. There’s still time for him to turn it around and cash in on that performance this winter in free agency. Sometimes, pitchers need to make massive changes to their arsenal or pitching styles. In the case of Robbie Ray, it’s just a matter of getting into more favorable counts and locating a pitch plan that hammers the corners of the zone as opposed to the bottom of it.
With a new pitching coach in the fold, Ray might be a change of scenery from being the above average pitcher we are familiar with.