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Prospect Retrospective: Robbie Ray

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A look at the prospect development of Diamondbacks lefty Robbie Ray.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Diamondbacks are out of the 2017 post-season but I want to take a moment and finish off the recent series of Prospect Retrospectives with a look at left-hander Robbie Ray, one of the bright spots for the Snakes this season.

Ray was drafted by the Washington Nationals in the 12th round in 2010. He threw just one innings in the New York-Penn League after signing but his high school scouting reports were interesting enough to merit a comment in the 2011 Baseball Prospect Book:

Robbie Ray was drafted in the 12th round last year from high school in Brentwood, Texas. That’s deceptive; he was rated as a second round talent by many evaluators, but fell in the draft due to a University of Arkansas commitment. Washington signed him for $799,000. Ray has hit 95 MPH at times but threw more often in the 87-92 range last year, though it’s hoped that physical maturity and some mechanical tweaks can make the peak velocity more consistent. He has a decent slider and a good changeup, and at times he shows sharp command. I think he could develop into a number three starter if all goes well, but as always with young pitchers he has to get through the injury nexus, etc. Perhaps I’m just in an optimistic mood today, but I’m going with a Grade B- for this one.

Indeed, his 2011 season was quite solid, with a 3.13 ERA in 89 innings in the South Atlantic League, 95/38 K/BB. I didn’t change his grade entering 2012 and retained a sense of optimism:

Ray had a promising full-season debut for Hagerstown in the Sally League, sporting impressive K/IP and H/IP ratios. He was on a strict pitch count and averaged less than five innings of work. Ray hit 95 MPH in high school but was in the 88-92 range last year, with movement. He has a very good changeup, and has made progress with his breaking ball. Scouts have mixed opinions here. Some think his velocity will increase as he matures physically, but others disagree and think he’s already maxed out. Given his age, and his strong dominance factors last season, I’m inclined to be optimistic and will stick with the Grade B-.

Alas, 2012 was quite different. He was crushed with a 6.56 ERA in 106 innings in High-A, with an 86/49 K/BB and 122 hits allowed. His velocity did not increase as hoped; worse, both of his secondary pitches lost crispness. Reports were quite negative and his rating took a hit entering 2013:

I have been very optimistic about him, but his 2012 season was horrible, punctuated by a particularly dismal stretch in August (16 innings, 25 hits, 14 walks, 29 runs). At his best,Ray hits the lower half of the strike zone with an 88-91 MPH fastball, a very good changeup, and a workable slider. He had problems with his location all year and his secondary pitches regressed. The good news is that he is still quite young—age 21 entering 2013—and I assume that the previous talent he showed is still in there somewhere. We have no choice but to go with a Grade C for now

2013 was much better: he combined for a 3.36 ERA in 142 innings between High-A and Double-A with a 160/62 K/BB and only 116 hits allowed. His fastball improved 2-3 MPH, he regained the touch with his change-up, and his breaking ball improved. Scouts from the Detroit Tigers noticed this and Ray was included in a winter trade for Doug Fister.

The view entering 2014:

The Tigers acquired Ray from the Nationals in the December 2013 Doug Fister trade. Originally a 12th round pick in 2010, his pro career has been erratic. He had serious problems in 2012 but rebounded with a fine ’13 campaign. Ray isn’t big but he’s athletic and has a lively arm, featuring a fastball at 90-96 MPH. His changeup is very good and his slider improved last year, going from terrible (which was a big problem in ’12) to erratic-but- sometimes-adequate. The fastball/change combination was enough for him to succeed in Double-A. If Ray makes further progress with the slider he could be a number three starter, but relief work is always a backup option. In short stretches the FB/CH could be effective in the Show even without a sharp breaker. Grade B-.

The Tigers bumped Ray up to Triple-A Toledo for 2014. He had some adjustment issues, his ERA 4.22 in 100 innings and his strikeout rate slipping again, with a 75/44 K/BB. He received a major league trial and got mashed, giving up 43 hits in 29 innings for an 8.16 ERA.

Seattle Mariners v Detroit Tigers
Robbie Ray, Detroit Tigers, 2014

The Tigers saw enough and shipped him to the Diamondbacks as part of the three-way Didi Gregorius trade with the Yankees. The outlook for ‘15:

Ray was traded from the Nationals to the Tigers in the 2013 Doug Fister deal. He put in an adequate season in Triple-A but was knocked around during a trial in Detroit. He was then traded again, this time to the Diamondbacks, where he will be in the fifth starter/bullpen mix. Ray has a low-90s fastball and a decently good change-up, but has had trouble finding a consistent breaking ball. Sometimes it looks like a hard slider, sometimes a curve, sometimes in between, and sometimes it just arcs into the zone without a lot of movement and gets hit hard. The old cliché about lefties getting many chances is operative here. Grade C+

Ray got that chance and ran with it in 2015, posting a 3.52 ERA in 23 starts, 119/49 K/BB in 128 innings, 2.2 fWAR. On the surface 2016 was much worse, his ERA rising to 4.90 in 174 innings, but his strikeout rate shot up (218/71 K/BB), he posted a decent 3.1 fWAR and his FIP was much better than the ERA at 3.76.

2017 was actually quite similar to 2016 component-wise, the FIP being almost identical at 3.72, but his luck and BABIP were much better, resulting in 2.89 ERA. His K/BB was exactly the same at 218/71, albeit in 162 innings this time. WAR results were similar at 3.2.

Ray had a notably impressive run in August and early September, posting a 46/4 K/BB over four starts and 28 innings August 30th to September 15th. Overall he has a career 29-36 record, 4.07 ERA in 493 innings, with a 574/202 K/BB. At age 26, his future appears bright, and right now he’s a fine number three starter.

As you can see, Ray’s track through the minors had some ups and downs but the talent was always there. His velocity has picked up, his fastball now averaging 95 MPH. It’s interesting that he hit 95 in high school but didn’t sustain it through most of his minor league career, though it picked up in the year before he reached the majors. That helps.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Los Angeles Dodgers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest change however is with his breaking ball. In the minors his breaking ball was rather slurvy and, as the old reports indicate, needed improvement. He’s made those improvements, now showing two distinct breaking balls, a slider and a curve, and these are both nasty on the right day.

Ray stuck out 10 or more hitters in 10 of his 28 starts this year. Brooks Baseball notes that both breaking pitches generate “an extremely high number of swings & misses”, which was certainly not the case when he was struggling in High-A.

Consistency is still an occasional issue for Ray; as Ryan Romano noted back for Beyond the Boxscore in May, he’ll still groove a slider occasionally and can get hit hard when that happens.

Overall, however, we looking at a young pitcher with a proven ability to dominate a game who is just entering his prime seasons.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Arizona Diamondbacks Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports