If you were able to predict what Robbie Ray did in 2021, give yourself a rousing standing ovation.
Ray was your 2021 American League Cy Young winner after posting a 2.84 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 248/52 K/BB ratio over 193 1/3 innings covering 32 starts for the Blue Jays. He received 29 of 30 first-place votes, easily beating out runner-up Gerrit Cole.
We’ve seen Ray be good in the past, of course. This was the fourth 200-strikeout season of his career, and back in 2017 he put up a 2.89 ERA. However, what the left-hander did this past season was obviously at another level, particularly when it comes to his control.
In 2020, Ray walked 45 batters over 51 2/3 frames. 45! Or, just seven fewer than he walked in 141 2/3 more innings in 2021.
From 2018-20, Ray walked 5.1 batters per nine innings. His career walk rate per nine going into 2021 was 4.3. Last year that number was 2.4. The league average is 3.3. It was truly a transformative turnaround in the control department.
I can understand if there might be apprehension in fully buying into Ray’s control improvement given that it was so bad for so long. The thing is, he was consistently good at throwing strikes virtually throughout the 2021 season. His walks per nine rate was below 2.6 in four of six months and in his wildest month it was a not-good-but-hardly-obscene 3.7. It sure seems like he’s just turned a corner.
Ray’s fastball and slider have always been his two primary pitches, but he took it to another level in 2021 as they represented more than 90 percent of his usage. In the past he had thrown his curveball quite a bit, with its usage topping 20 percent at its peak. He used it just six percent of the time last season.
Simplifying his pitch mix no doubt helped Ray find the strike zone more often. Perhaps using his fastball more also allowed him to find a little more velocity, as he was throwing as hard as he ever had.
One of the best ways to measure the nastiness of a pitcher is looking at their swinging strike rate. Ray’s last season was 15.5 percent, a mark which was bettered only by Max Scherzer (15.9 percent) and Corbin Burnes (16.6 percent).
Ray has always been a flyball pitcher who will serve up his fair share of home runs, and that was no different in 2021 as he gave up 33 bombs. However, when you’re difficult to hit and are much stingier with your free passes, a lot of those homers are going to be solo shots. Twenty-three of the 33 dingers Ray allowed last year were of the solo variety. It’s possible to give up a bunch of solo homers and still be dominant. Mr. Scherzer does it regularly.
A 90.1 percent strand rate like Ray had last season is not sustainable. It was easily the highest rate of all qualifiers in 2021. There’s certainly an element of luck there which, in all likelihood, will be corrected to some degree in 2022.
What we have not talked about yet is Ray’s new home venue, which, after he signed a five-year, $115 million contract with the Mariners, will be T-Mobile Park. It should, undoubtedly, be a big help to the southpaw.
In looking at Statcast’s three-year Park Factors, T-Mobile Park comes in at 27th, ahead of only Oracle Park and Oakland Coliseum. T-Mobile is more neutral in terms of home runs with a rating of 98, but then we see Rogers Centre sitting at 115. That could be huge for a guy who, as we’ve mentioned, can have issues with the long ball. Getting out of the AL East also means Ray will see less of Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
While his new park and new division should be a plus, the defense behind Ray could be a minus. The Mariners’ defense did not rate well last season, particularly in the outfield. On paper, that doesn’t seem likely to change in 2022, although we can’t rule out Jarred Kelenic showing improvement as he gets more comfortable.
It’s difficult to know at this point what kind of offense to expect to be backing Ray. The Mariners were a little below average offensively in 2021 and so far this offseason have subtracting Kyle Seager and added Adam Frazier. However, the general feeling is that they’re likely to bring aboard at least one more bat, and top prospect Julio Rodriguez could arrive sooner rather than later, as well. Still, Ray certainly seems likely to have less run support than he did with the Blue Jays.
All told, there’s a lot to like about Ray’s move to the Mariners in terms of fantasy outlook. The LOB rate will drop and the possibility that his control regresses is there. However, I think there’s very little danger that Ray’s walk rate fully backslides. I suspect I’ll wind up with him on a good number of my teams in 2022 in what will be his age-30 season.
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Quick Hits: According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, the Athletics have chosen Mark Kotsay to be their new manager … The Mets officially announced the hiring of Buck Showalter to be their manager and will introduce him at a press conference Tuesday … The Reds have signed Jake Bauers to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training … Ivan Nova has signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the SSG Landers of the Korea Baseball Organization, per Jeeho Yoo of Yonhap News.