Robbie Ray AL Cy Young candidate entering free agency

For much of this season, the presumption has been that the AL Cy Young award would be lost to Gerrit Cole. But what if it’s now Robbie Ray who wins?

As the $ 324 million arm for the team he rooted to grow, Cole has both the numbers and the narrative to capture his first individual material, an honor many expected the ace of the Yankees one day claims. But a pitcher who had to settle for an $ 8million deal because his 2020 was so frustrating could be upset for the ages, especially after Cole took a few extra days between starts after a pain. hamstring left him quit early Sept. 7. 7?

And if the Blue Jays left-hander wins the award – or even if he almost comes close to finishing in the top three of the vote at this point – what could that mean for the enigmatic but talented future of the starter as a free agent this offseason?

Let’s start here. How difficult was Ray’s performance a year ago? He finished with a 6.62 ERA and a 1.90 WHIP – largely due to a worst 45 walks in the MLB – in 51 2/3 innings between the D-backs and the Blue Jays . Never known for his control or command, Ray’s inability to dodge free passes grew to the point where the D-backs sent him to Toronto on the trade deadline for little-known left-handed reliever Travis Bergen. (Arizona nominated Bergen for an assignment in February 2021 before returning him to the Blue Jays for cash consideration.)

Ray was better for the Blue Jays after the trade, if only slightly – a 4.79 ERA with a WHIP of 1.74 in a 20 minute 2/3 innings sample – but he flashed enough for the club to re-sign at the start of the off season.

As’s Keegan Matheson wrote at the time: “It may seem counterintuitive at the area level, after the Blue Jays spoke about the importance of improving the club’s strikes at dawn. 2021, but that decision is clearly about who Toronto thinks Ray may be, not who he was in 20. … Pitching coach Pete Walker and the Blue Jays don’t need to get Ray to the point where he is. paints corners every tee off. As long as Ray can find the area with some level of consistency, his fastball and cursor can be dominant when everything clicks. “

Talk about a one-time assessment. Ray, 29, entered the AL’s lead this week in ERA (2.69), strikeouts (220) and innings pitched (170 1/3), while his WHIP (1.03) and his Walk rates per nine (2.3) are by far the best of his career.

Sometimes the simplest possible explanation is fine. Ray has been much closer to the strike zone this year. To be exact, 51.0% of his shots were in the zone, up dramatically from his ’20 rate of 42.9%, which was a career low. This 8.1 percentage point increase is the largest Year after year and one of the main reasons Ray has been one of the most improved players in the sport.

Its rate in the 2021 zone is also the second highest of his career, other than his first season on The Show in 2014, when he threw 51.9% of the zone shots (albeit only 28 2/3 innings). To get a better idea of ​​how significant this turnaround is, check out this graph showing Ray’s steady decline in the category … up to this year:

Being closer to the strike zone should result in a lower walk rate, and that’s what happened for Ray. What’s crazy, however, is how stark the numbers are.

Remember, this is a pitcher who walked the most batters in last year’s shortened season. On Ray’s first outing in 2021, he issued three free passes in five pictures and followed six more walks – tie your career to a high point, set three separate times in 20 – in five runs, her very next start. Not really a good sign, right?

Ray cut his walk rate from 17.9 percent to 6.5 percent – or a whopping 11.5 percentage points, which is the most of 2020-21 by many among pitchers to pitch at least 50 innings each season. In fact, this is one of the best year-over-year walk rate improvements this century.

Largest season-to-season BB% drop since 2000
At least 50 IP
Aroldis Chapman: 11.5% from 2011 to 2012
Robbie Ray: 11.4% from 2020 to 2021
LaTroy Hawkins: 10.9% from 2001 to 2002
Craig Kimbrel: 8.1% from 2016 to 2017
Tyler Chatwood: 8.1% from 2018 to 2019
Arthur Rhodes: 8.1% from 1999 to 2000
David Riske: 7.9% from 2002 to 2003
Framber Valdez: 7.8% from 2019 to 2020
Akinori Otsuka: 7.6% from 2005 to 2006
Kazuhiro Sasaki: 7.5% from 2000 to 2001

As you may notice, this is a very heavy list of relief. The only pitchers to have made only one start in the season in which their walk rate dropped so much were Chatwood (five starts in 2019), Valdez (10 starts in 2020) and now Ray. In other words, what he has done in this category is more or less unheard of by a starting pitcher since 2000.

So Ray throws more shots into the zone and walks fewer hitters, but how does he do that?

Again, the answer is simple to a point: he threw in his four seams almost 60% of the time, which is the highest rate of his career (other than this partial 2014 campaign).

The fastball is the easiest throw to control for most throwers, so it follows that one way to improve command and control is to throw it more often. It’s also noteworthy that the last time Ray threw the four seams north 55% of the time was during his breakthrough year of 2017, when he had a 2.89 ERA, a WHIP. of 1.15, is part of the All-Star team and finished seventh to NL Cy Young vote.

This heavier approach suggests an element of “here, try hitting it” for a left-hander who owns a heater that’s in the mid-90s and can hit 98. At 94.9 mph on average this season, it’s tied for the best four-stitch bike of its career (with ’16), the highest since ’17 (94.2 mph) and a full click over last year (93, 9 mph).

This also matches the fact that Ray’s first throw hit rate is the the best of his career at 61.3 percent, a massive jump from 52.2 percent last year. He showed more confidence in his fastball, which regained the bike, allowing Ray to throw the pitch more frequently, more accurately, and more effectively – even as the first pitch of a batting.

The intriguing aspect here is that Ray has had such success despite the limitation of his repertoire. In short, he increased his use of fastball at the expense of his curveball. After throwing the heck out almost 16% of the time a year ago – when hitters hit 0.474 against the offer with an xwOBA of 0.437 – it’s now down to less than 7%. That’s because between his fastball and his cursor, Ray has …


As established, Ray’s gridlines have arguably been the biggest key, but his erasure cursor needs to be mentioned here. While Ray’s fastball’s -22 run value makes it the third best overall pitch by this metric (tied with Cole’s), his slider’s run value -10 also ranks as a top 50 (minimum 150 PA), thanks to an odor percentage of 46.2 – fifth higher for a slider in MLB among the starting pitchers.

The highest cursor Whiff% as the starting pitcher
Minimum 100 swings from the slider
Jacob de Grom: 58.1%
Dylan discontinuation: 49.2%
Max Scherzer: 48.2%
Blake Snell: 46.4%
Robbie Ray: 46.2%
Logan Webb: 45.3%
Clayton Kershaw: 43.8%
JT Brubaker: 42.3%
Lucas Giolito: 42.2%
Freddy Peralta: 42.0%


What does all of this mean for Ray? Well, he’s alongside Cole in the race for the AL Cy Young Award, and that will make his next free agency all the more fascinating this time around. What might his contract look like?

Ray’s signing – which is almost a lock in receiving and declining the qualifying offer – that comes from this stellar season could very well take something in the order of nine digits, as long as the teams have faith that this turnaround. is real.

Can he approach, say, Zack Wheeler’s $ 118 million five-year deal with the Phillies, given that Wheeler was also a “thing” guy who had a checkered history at the time of signing? Or how about comparing Ray’s potential contract to one signed by a pitcher with familiar experience as a southpaw who relies on a slider inducing strikeouts and used to pitch for D-backs? –Patrick Corbin, who leveraged a career year in 2018 in a six-year, $ 140 million pact with the Nationals?

These estimates may seem high, but if Ray wins the Cy Young or finishes in the top three of the vote, then he will have a precedent in his corner. Over the past 10 years, here are the pitchers who have finished so high in the vote in their running year:

While Ray does not have the consistency and launch pedigree that Cole, Price, and Greinke had established when they made their deals, it seems reasonable that Ryu’s $ 80 million mark could be the floor, all the more so. that Ray is younger than Ryu and that he has been much more durable. at this point in his career.

A look at the biggest names in pitchers expected to hit the open market this offseason shows Greinke, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman and Carlos Rodón. (Justin Verlander and Noah Syndergaard are in another bucket after Tommy John’s surgery.)

Ray’s free agency could rival that of Rodón, a southpaw with high octane stuff who returned with a one-year contract in the team with which he ended a disappointing 2020, only to settle down well by organizing a career year. Seems familiar?

Before that, however, comes Ray’s attempt to cause an upheaval by winning the AL Cy Young award against Cole and throwing the soaring Blue Jays into the playoffs, possibly even ahead of Cole’s Yankees.

If Ray finishes strong, both outcomes could well happen.

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