As a high schooler in 2009, Robbie Ray brought a mid 90s fastball from the left side, which will grab just about anyone's attention. He was drafted by the Nationals in the 12th round of the 2010 draft, and was signed for an above-slot $799,000 despite showing decreased velocity compared to 2009. Ray continued to underwhelm in velocity, bottoming out with a rough 2012 where he posted a 6.56 ERA as a 20-year old in Hi-A Potomac, before rebounding thus far in 2013, showing more velocity than he has in years.
Ray's decline in velocity didn't necessarily hold him back in his first full season in 2011, as he posted an impressive 95 strikeouts in 89 innings to go along with a 3.13 ERA and 1.22 WHIP in Lo-A Hagerstown. 2012 was a different story for Ray, as he faced older competition in Hi-A, he saw his strikeouts dip to 7.32 per nine innings and his walks bump up to over four per nine. It wasn't just a decrease in strikeouts or an increase in walks that was troublesome for Ray, but the massive bump in home runs allowed; going from three in 89 innings in 2011 to 14 in 105.2 innings in 2012, especially a problem for a pitcher with as much life on his fastball as Ray has. Thus far in 2013, Ray has surpassed even his 2011 performance both in statistics and in the scouting reports. The walks are once again over four per nine innings, but he's seen his strikeouts per nine skyrocket to just under 12, with 64 in 48.1 innings. He's kicked it up a notch in May, logging 30 strikeouts in just 19.1 innings, against 11 walks. It should be noted that this is a repeat performance for Ray, so while he is age appropriate for the level (149 of 192 plate appearances have come against older batters), this isn't the first time he's seen the league. I would be more concerned about that aspect of his performance to date if the scouting reports hadn't improved as well.
I've made a big deal about Ray's rollercoaster ride when it comes to velocity, with good reason, I think. He's seen much improved results in 2013, and he's also seen a uptick in velo. While he was sitting 87-91 MPH at his nadir, Ray is solidly back into the 90s, and touching 96 MPH this year. Ray's fastball has always featured plus life, and arriving in the low to mid 90s he's overpowered the Carolina League with it. While there is life on the ball, Ray's groundball to flyball rate is merely good, not great at 1.45. Ray's secondary pitches lag significantly behind the fastball, with his change up more consistent than the slider. He's had a feel for a change up for a few years and it's been projected as a potential above-average pitch in time. His slider flashes occasionally but is inconsistent at this point. The advancement of the change up is important for Ray, as the southpaw will need it to combat right-handed batters. Mechanics have been inconsistent for Ray, who has traditionally been a short strider. The Nationals have worked with him to use his legs more, as well as adding deception. The more he learns to repeat his mechanics, the better his chances of improving his control and command, which both could use some work.
As it stands, the season would be a wild success if Ray can continue to do what he's doing. However, I think the season could get better still, if he can continue to progress with his secondary offerings. 2012 was a difficult experience, no doubt, but one of my favorite things to look for in prospects is the ability to respond to adversity. Ray has shown he can do just that, which makes me think he could it again if the time comes. Ray was off of most radars entering this season, ranking as low as number 18 on a fairly shallow Nationals top 30 per Baseball America. I suspect that he'll receive more attention come some midseason re-ranks, and could easily crack the Nationals top 10 if his season ends the way it starts. The talent has always been there for Ray, and it's starting to re-emerge. The time to buy low is now. Putting my money where my mouth is, I picked him up in a 10-team NL-only with 30 man minor league systems. It's a league with a very deep minor league system, as you can see, but I think he's already worth the pick used to select him, as I could likely trade him at a substantial profit even now.