Prior to leaving Sunday’s game with an oblique injury Robbie Ray was having an awful season. Ray had a 4.88 ERA in 27 2/3 innings whilst walking 13.7 percent of the hitters he faced. He was still striking hitters out at a phenomenal rate of 36.3 percent, but he was not getting the same results as 2017.
Coming into the season, big things were expected of Ray. Last season, his ERA was 2.89 across 162 innings with 218 strikeouts. There is no other way to phrase it than he was phenomenal. Now, with the addition of the humidor, many people were expecting Ray to put up another extraordinary season. However, that has clearly not been the case so far. So why has Ray suddenly started putting up stat lines similar to 2016? Was 2017 just simply a fluke?
Has luck played a factor?
In 2017, Ray had almost exactly the same FIP (3.72 to 3.76) as he had in 2016. However, his ERA varied by nearly two runs (2.89 to 4.90). That is quite a difference and suggests that there was an extreme difference in the defense behind Ray in those two seasons. In 2018, Ray has a FIP of 4.24 compared to his 4.88 ERA. So yes, there has been some element of bad defense but, equally, Ray has just pitched worse this season. That he has pitched worse is evident from the three percent increase in walk rate compared to last season. Yes, his BABIP is higher in 2018 than in 2017, but it is actually exactly the same as it was in 2016. All in all, I think we can say that there has been some bad luck compared to 2017. However, that has not been the sole reason for the decline.
So, what about his pitch mix?
Last week I looked at how Patrick Corbin had added a curveball to great effect this year. Well, that is pretty much the same as what Ray did last year. The slight difference is that Ray did use a curveball in 2016, but just 5.5 percent of the time. Last season he used it a whopping 20.5 percent and he used it to great effect. 40.9 percent of those pitches were thrown for a strike and hitters whiffed on 18.9 percent. Across the board, it was probably his most successful pitch in 2017. In 2018, he has upped the usage to 25.9 percent and the results have been similar. The only difference is that the home run rate had doubled, but some of that may just be small sample size.
His other pitches are a slider, which was his next most successful in 2017, a four-seam, a sinker and a change. Much like other pitchers, he has seemingly eradicated his change in 2018. His sinker is now also barely being thrown and his four-seam has decreased a fraction but is still his primary pitch. Much like the curveball, his slider has been getting good success again this year except for the home run rate.
Again here, there is much to read into this. Ray has had a little bit less luck with his two best pitches but he has not changed anything significantly.
So, is he just a slow starter?
Ignoring Sunday’s start, which lasted just 1.1 innings, Ray had made five starts this season. He had thrown 26 1/3 innings, had a 5.13 ERA, had struck out 43 and had walked 17. So let’s take a look at what happened to begin the season in 2017. Through five starts Ray pitched 30 1/3 innings with a 3.56 ERA, 39 strikeouts, and 17 walks. He had fewer strikeouts but overall he had been a little better through the first five starts. In his first five starts in 2016 the story was along the same lines. 25 1/3 innings, a 4.97 ERA, 27 strikeouts and 15 walks.
So we can see that Ray was definitely better in 2017 across five starts but that is just an arbitrary cut-off. If we now make the cut-off eight starts let’s have a look at his numbers. Ray had pitched 45 1/3 innings, he had a 4.57 ERA with 59 strikeouts and 26 walks. The reason I picked eight starts is because his ERA never got worse after this point.
What I now want to do is compare Ray’s first eight starts in 2017 with the rest of his season. The remainder of the season encompasses 20 starts and stretches right through to October. In those 20 starts, Ray threw 116 2/3 innings with 159 strikeouts, 45 walks and an impressive 2.24 ERA. He still had rough outings but they were more spread out. In four of those first eight outings he gave up four earned runs or more. In the next 20 starts he gave up just another four.
Those numbers are certainly not definitive because we are only really comparing a couple of seasons. However, the numbers do suggest that Ray may just be a slow starter. It is a shame he got injured when he did because now we will not get to see if the same thing would happen in 2018. A second season in a row where he started badly and improved would be a nice pattern to use going forward to evaluate Ray. Now if he improves, the great, but maybe there was something else he worked out whilst on the DL. If he is bad then maybe it is due to a lingering oblique injury.
How Ray returns from his stint on the DL will certainly be something to watch. Hopefully he can recapture last seasons form. When he was at his best he was a lot of fun to watch and it would be a shame if we don’t get to see that pitcher again this year.