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Can the Blue Jays fix Robbie Ray?

For a team that has struggled on defence like the Blue Jays have, getting a strikeout pitcher like Robbie Ray should be a great add. Ray has struck out 12.48 batters per nine this season, his fourth consecutive season over 12 K/9. Though any pressure Ray takes off the defence with strikeouts he gives right back with walks. When you walk a batter an inning like Ray has, you put a ton of pressure on the defence behind you to turn two and make plays. There is little room for error.

It wasn’t that long ago Ray was a really strong pitcher. He was an all-star in 2017 and from ’17-19 he ranked fifth in baseball striking out 31.9% of hitters.

To get Ray back to where he was a couple years ago, the first thing the Blue Jays need to do is get his mechanics under control. Walks have always been a problem throughout Ray’s career. In an effort to improve his command he changed his diet, coming into Spring Training 15 pounds lighter and changed his mechanics trying to be more fluid.

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The difference in mechanics is striking:

This is similar to the type of change Lucas Giolito and Shane Bieber made. Sadly Ray did not have their success and kept changing things.

As Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic wrote “Ray seemingly had been making significant changes to his delivery and arm action prior to each start.”

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Here is Ray’s most recent start and you can see some of the changes he’s made.

 

The different mechanics did not help with command at all; Ray leads the league with 31 walks. What Ray has done this season, as Tony Wolfe noted in his piece on Fangraphs, is increased his velocity from last season. Wolfe goes on to mention how nothing about Ray’s stuff or how he sequences pitches has really changed. Looking at Baseball Savant, Ray’s slider has a few inches less drop than in years past, but it’s still an elite pitch for him with a swinging strike rate of 18.2%.

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His pitch mix again, remains relatively unchanged. The biggest issue for him is he isn’t finding the strike zone as often as he once did. His zone percentage is down to 35.4%, per Fangraphs, a career low and part of an alarming trend that has seen his zone rate drop every year since 2016. Ray was typically able to counteract that by getting ahead of batters with first pitch strikes. He typically threw a first pitch strike just under 60% of the time, this season he is down to 46.1%.

Ray just doesn’t get batters to chase enough to be falling behind and missing the zone this often. Wolfe mentions Bieber who has the lowest zone rate in baseball, but leads pitchers in WAR.

“Bieber gets a chase rate of 38.9%, second-highest in baseball. Ray’s is 25.8%, fifth-lowest in baseball and nearly six points lower than the career-high 31.5% rate he achieved in 2019.”

When you miss the zone this often you are going to rack up the pitch count. The big thing for the Blue Jays this season is they haven’t had a pitcher throw a pitch in the seventh inning yet. Don’t get your hopes up for Ray, he won’t be doing that either. Ray will give you a 90-100 pitches every time out, his pitch count just gets so high so fast, he can’t pitch deep into games.

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This has been an issue for Ray his entire career. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs wrote an appropriately titled “Getting the Most out of Robbie Ray” post at the trade deadline last July. He mentioned how Ray has trouble getting deep in games, as his velocity declines throughout his start and he has trouble going through the line-up a third time.

Looking at this season, even with the improved velocity Ray still loses velocity as he pitches.

Inning Fastball Velocity
1 94.4
2 94.2
3 93.7
4 93.6
5 93.1
6 92.4

As a fastball slider pitcher, without a reliable third pitch he struggles to get through the line-up more than twice. For his career:

First Time through .223/.312/.376

Second Time through .228/.323/.382

Third Time through .287/.363/.535

What Edwards brought up in his piece that really stood out was Ray’s issues pitching with the bases empty. That has continued to be huge problem for Ray this season.

With no one on batters are hitting just .214 with a 30.8% K rate, however Ray is walking 26.9% of hitters in these situations. His control evaporates with the bases empty.

On the left is all of Ray’s 2020 pitches with the bases empty and on the right are with runners on base. Clearly Ray has the ability to throw strikes. He still misses the zone quite a bit but he at least gets the ball over the plate with people on base. This stark of a difference is attributed to Ray struggling to pitch out of the windup.

As mentioned before Ray tinkers and he tinkered a lot with his windup. He started the season with the traditional windup as you can see in the tweet above, part way through the season he switched to a more abbreviated windup, to his last two starts where he just pitched out of the stretch. It didn’t help his command much; he walked a combined eight with the bases empty in those last two starts.

Ray needs a philosophy change when pitching with no one on base. He needs to stop nibbling and be more aggressive in the strike zone. Ray doesn’t seem to throw the ball up in the zone very much, particularly his fastball.

That’s a lot of fastballs right over the heart of the plate. For a strikeout pitcher it’s a little odd he doesn’t live more at the top of the zone. Reese McGuire and Danny Jansen are both above average pitch framers on pitches above the strike zone. Baseball Savant labels the zone right above the strike zone as zone 12. The major league average for called strikes in that zone is 45.6%. McGuire is well above the average getting called strikes 52.5%, while Jansen is below at 41.7%. Both are much better than Arizona’s two catches Stephen Vogt and Carson Kelly who are at 36.5% and 37.9% respectively. So maybe what the Blue Jays will do is have McGuire catch Ray and see if having a better receiver behind the plate will help him have more confidence throwing strikes and being aggressive, particularly with the bases empty.

Robbie Ray is a big upside move for the Blue Jays. You get a different coaching staff working with him, maybe they see something or suggest something that clicks, and he gets back to being that strong mid-rotation starter. Pete Walker is going to have to work with him and get those mechanics sorted out, then you can work with McGuire on a more aggressive approach and hopefully this will all help him find his command. If it works the Blue Jays have acquired an arm that could be a difference maker down the stretch. If not the cost to acquire him was minimal, he can fill in for a couple of starts and leave as a free agent at the end of the season. For the Blue Jays this is a risk worth taking.