In addition to sharing a first name and having a beard, Robbie Ray and I have little in common. He’s left-handed and from Tennessee, for example. Oh, and he’s a professional baseball player who just struck out a third of all the batters he faced over 162 innings and helped his team make the postseason.
I’ve written about him at least twice before (here and here). Why have I written about him so much and why am I doing it again? First of all, I know I’m not alone in liking guys that can rack up strikeouts. For reference, here is the list of starting pitchers with a higher strikeout rate over the last two seasons than Ray: Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, and...Clayton Kershaw. That’s it. That’s the list.
The second thing that makes him interesting is that despite all those strikeouts, his ERA was an awful 4.90 in 2016. He had a problem with hard contact, high BABIPs, and home runs.
Then, in 2017 everything came together. Here are his 2016 and 2017 stats:
You can see the ERA dropped off a cliff. So, too, did his BABIP allowed. His strikeout rate and swinging strike rate surged. The results in 2017 are certainly encouraging. He looks like an ace-level fantasy pitcher. Look at that shiny ERA! All those Ks! But, and yes, there’s a “but,” when we are looking ahead to 2018, there are reasons for concern.
Yes, the regression monster is alive and well. You see, hidden behind that great ERA and all the strikeouts, you see some troubling numbers. His hard hit rate went from one of the worst in baseball in 2016 to 4th worst in baseball by going up 4%. The guys near him on that list include Ian Kennedy, Daniel Norris, and Amir Garrett. Not great company. The fact that Chris Archer is also close to him is the subject of an entirely different post.
Despite Ray’s hard hit rate increasing, his BABIP dropped from way above average to way below average. That doesn’t make sense at all. Further, his strand rate (LOB%) also went from below average to above average, meaning he stranded runners at a higher rate in 2017 despite allowing more hard hits. You can see why I am concerned.
FIP and xFIP are also concerned. His 2017 numbers for those two look very similar to his 2016 numbers, meaning that all his gains in strikeouts were offset by hard hits and walks. You see, his walk rate also went up in 2017. He is also hurt in general by playing in a ballpark that is hitter friendly in an era when balls are flying out of the park. His HR/FB rate didn’t change, but it was still above the league average of 14%.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that, despite an excellent ERA in 2017, Ray isn’t actually that much better than he was in 2016. The reality is probably something between the two. He will always have command issues that lead to hard hits and high walk rates, but his strikeouts will keep his ERA to reasonable levels and keep him valuable in fantasy.
I expect an ERA around 3.40. I think his strikeout rate may dip a little from its obscene 2017 level, but still be excellent. If he can somehow get his walks in check, he could become a legitimate ace-level pitcher, but he hasn’t shown that yet.
Tl;dr: Ray’s very bad 2016 luck completely flipped to good luck in 2017, but reality and the expectation for 2018 is something in between. Regression is coming for his ERA, BABIP, and LOB%, but expect mostly the same from everything else.