After putting together a surprisingly strong 2015, Robbie Ray’s follow-up campaign was a mixed bag. Ray managed to increase his strikeout rate posting a superb 11.25 K/9 in 2016 compared to a respectable 8.39 K/9 in 2015. This change was backed by a leap SwStr% from 9% to 11.6%. Ray also gained another tick on his fastball, upping his average velocity from over 93 MPH in 2015 to 94 MPH in 2016.
Now, as fantasy players, we are always going to stare at strikeout rates and dream. We are also going to look at walk rates and while Ray’s 3.67 BB/9 seem high at first glance, in the context of the strikeout rate, it is more than livable.
As fantasy players, it is also ingrained in us to attempt to find value anywhere we can. We crave surplus value. When we see a left-hander pumping in a fastball with an average velocity of 94 MPH and striking out over 11 per 9 innings with a 4.50 ERA, it screams value regardless of whether the pitcher was seen as a premium prospect or not. Ray’s .352 BABIP and 1.24 HR/9 do nothing to cool this theory… The BABIP has to regress! He doubled his homer rate – there’s no way that sticks!
Are we sure?
Here’s what we know, Ray is a wildly different pitcher than he was at any point before 2015. The velocity bump from 2014 to 2016 took him from average velocity for a lefthander to second in the Majors behind only James Paxton from Seattle. Prior to 2015, his primary secondary pitcher was the changeup, now it’s a slider. At this point, Ray has rightly decided to pretty much scrap the change.
With respect to the batted balls, it is possible that Ray was unlucky with a league-leading .352 BABIP, which contributed to his 68.7% LOB%. However, to some extent, all pitchers including Ray make their own luck by the amount of hard contact that they surrender. Ray surrendered the second highest Hard Contact% among qualified starters last year at 36.6%. Simply put, when he was not striking batters out, they were driving the ball hard either in play or out of the park. Ray’s Hard Contact % was slightly worse year-over-year from 2015 (35.0%) so this is a pattern on the one-hand and on the other, we probably have a good idea on where Ray will fall on the BABIP spectrum. Barring some unforeseen change in skill, he is likely going to post a below average BABIP for a pitcher.
Now, there are other variables that affect BABIP like team defense. Notably, last year, Arizona ranked 26th in defensive runs saved. In 2015, they were 6th. With A.J. Pollock and David Peralta returning to the outfield, the Diamondbacks defense might improve this year quite a bit. Their primary catchers are better pitch-framers than Wellington Castillo and better framing could lead to better counts and less baserunners. Less baserunners would really help Ray, who struggled with his control when men were on base – Ray had a 2.60 BB/9 with the bases empty compared to 5.25 BB/9 with runners on.
Based upon the circumstances, I think we can say that Ray’s BABIP will improve over last year, but it is unlikely to be average or better.
With respect to home runs, again year-over-year, we have a fairly stark contrast. In 2015, Ray was able to suppress homers, only surrendering 0.63 per 9. As I stated previously, that number basically doubled to 1.24 HR/9 in 2016. Given the similarities in hard contact rate between the two years, it is increasingly likely that once again, we have seen Ray’s floor and ceiling in terms of homer suppression.
Of course, this all assumes that Ray remains the same pitcher. Like his circumstances, Ray could undergo changes. He could lose velocity and become worse. He could find a third pitch and completely breakout. These are the sort of things that spring training may provide us clues on. In order to improve with his current repertoire, Ray needs to command the ball better in and out of the zone. If he does that, Ray could surrender less hard contact without a change in pitch mix. However, while it might be his likeliest path to improvement, there is no guarantee that the improvement comes.
I feel comfortable projecting a little bit of regression for Ray on the BABIP and home run rate, but cannot project a full breakout unless there is some skill change that simply was not present last year. Instead, I think Ray will be frustrating, but worth owning in mixed leagues with that regression baked into his profile. Without any changes, Ray is probably a mix of 2015 and 2016, which is ownable and at different times, enthralling and painful. As the 62nd SP off the board, he’ll return value over the full season and the upside is certainly worth the gamble.
My Projection: 190 IP, 3.95 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 230 Ks.