Robbie Ray started the season with three very good starts, rolling through good Cubs, Dodgers and Giants offenses to allow just 4 earned runs in 18.1 innings, good for a shiny 1.96 ERA to start the year with a strong 8.34 K/9. From late April to early June, things weren’t quite so rosy, as Ray averaged under 5 innings for 9 starts with a 6.49 ERA. But Ray’s back, doing what he does best.
Before Ray’s start on June 12, manager Chip Hale dropped some unusual information on the pitcher: he was going to let Ray throw 115 pitches that day. The idea, as he retold it to Mike Ferrin on the Coors Light BP Show, was not just to get deeper — the coaching staff thought that their pressure on Ray to get deeper in games was causing the wheels to come off for Ray earlier in the game. The thought was that when Ray first got into trouble, he felt pressure to “make up for” the lost pitches by having other, more efficient innings. To the extent that’s true, that was an admirable goal — but Ray isn’t Dallas Keuchel or Brad Ziegler. Ray is Ray. And freed of the pressure to be extra efficient, Ray immediately rattled off arguably the finest start of his career. And then another great start.
The 115 pitch limit worked. And maybe it’s not sustainable; after throwing 116 pitches in that June 12th game, Ray’s thrown 108, 101 and 101 pitches in his starts since then. But there’s a silver lining: what Ray did in those two great starts earlier this month is something he can do again, even without a high pitch limit. But before we get there, let’s get back to where Ray was before that.
We looked at what Ray was doing and the success of his pitch mix on the last day of May, and the results were stark; Ray was having really great success against lefties, but against righties, a move toward sinkers (.578 SLG) and changeups (.800 SLG) was not working out. Based on the pitch-level information:
Ray probably should stop throwing so many sinkers to right-handed hitters. That doesn’t appear to be too complicated. As we said, we’re at the point of the season now when we can start to pass judgment on new experiments if 1) we had reason to think they wouldn’t work, and 2) they haven’t worked. There’s a stronger case here to be made than the one with Corbin, even; Ray’s fourseam has always fared well, and there’s no compelling reason to rachet down his use of that pitch against RHH, other than the foul ball phenomenon. A few extra foul balls seem like an easy price to pay for fewer home runs, and singles, and doubles, and triples.
We’re still in small samples land on Ray’s change and breaking balls, but not quite as much against RHH. Still, just as with Corbin, Ray’s attempts to get changeups by right-handed hitters have been unsuccessful, and it’s probably time to end that experiment. Since the beginning of 2015, the only pitch that RHH have had more success with off Ray is his sinker; we covered that. What little advantage Ray seems to have gleaned in 2015 by having the change be a surprise has now vanished with a fairly small uptick in usage. Like Corbin, Ray only gets about 7 mph of differential between his change and his fastballs, and while it’s not quite as horizontal as Corbin’s version of the pitch, it’s still very much a “Power Change,” a pitch on which pitchers don’t normally gain a platoon advantage anyway.
There was more to it than that, of course, and while Ray was beating up lefties, there was also reason to believe he could beat them up more. But it did seem like Ray could do quite a lot better by backing away from sinkers and changeups against RHH, at least to the extent that it was worth a try.
In that June 12 start against the Marlins for which Ray knew he had a 115 pitch limit, he threw just one sinker. It makes sense; when Ray thought he needed to be efficient, he strayed from his four-seam fastball and the high foul% associated with it in favor of his sinker, hoping for ground balls or other weak contact. When Ray has moved to the sinker for that purpose this year, it’s been hit very hard, not weakly — it’s backfired. Taking the pressure off Ray to make up for long innings with short ones allowed him to stick with the game that’s made him successful, when he’s been successful.
Building off of his June 12 nearly-sinker-less success, Ray didn’t throw a single sinker on June 17 against the Phillies. In that start, Ray threw 89 four-seam fastballs, and 19 sliders… and that’s it. The result: 108 pitches, six innings, 7 hits, 7 strikeouts, and just one walk. Overall in his two nearly-sinker-less starts, Ray had a 1.32 ERA with a 0.88 WHIP in 13.2 innings, and still got his strikeouts (13). Seems like a model to build around.
But wait — there’s more. In his last four starts, Ray hasn’t thrown any changeups. Not in the 116 pitch start, the 108 pitch start, or the two more recent ones. Before June 12, Ray used his change almost exclusively to righties, which was part of what we thought the problem was; he only mixed in a few changeups to lefties in 2-strike counts, more or less. But against RHH, the change wasn’t used as a put-away pitch by Ray. Instead, he went to it when he was on the ropes, throwing it 19% of the time when a RHH was ahead in the count. Instead of holding righties, off, they slugged a ridiculous .833 on the change with 1 or 2 balls, better than their 1.000 SLG in 0-ball counts, but not exactly good. RHH got a changeup in 3-ball counts 11 times… and walked five of those times. It was horrendous all around, all the time against righties.
But now it’s gone, and Ray hasn’t missed it. It’s seemed like he’s taken a step back in his last two starts, yielding four earned runs in 5.1 innings against the hammerin’ Jays and another four earned runs in 6 innings at home against Philly. The sinker isn’t solely to blame — a .439 SLG against the 14 that ended at bats against righties isn’t terrible, by any means — but it’s remarkable that Ray more or less took an extreme version of our advice a few weeks ago and made it work, and then reversed himself on half of the two changes, and did poor again. It’s not clear to me that Ray should never throw changeups or sinkers, at all — there’s plenty of reason to think they’d both be decent pitches against LHH. Through some experimentation, though, it does look like we were onto something at the end of May.
The sinker’s foul% (16.5% of sinkers fouled) is lower than his four-seam’s foul% (22.0% this season), but that has not been a good thing this season; his sinker also has a much lower whiff% (6.5%, to the four-seam’s 10.8%), it’s been called for a ball much more often (37.9%, to the four-seam’s 32.4%), and it’s been punished when put in play (.551 SLG, to the four-seam’s excellent .358 SLG). Watch for whether Ray keeps going back to his frisbee sinker, a pitch with uncommon rise (about 7.5 inches) and amazing run (over 10.5 inches of horizontal movement). We saw a glimpse of an ace-caliber Ray earlier this month. Whether he continues to shy away from his change and whether he continues to go back to his sinker could have a lot to do with whether we see that ace-caliber Ray again.
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