clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

40 in 40: Robbie Ray’s long offseason

What happens when you have to wait five months before you can get back on the horse?

Robbie Ray
Bring back the ‘stache, Robbie
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Philadelphia had a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth, so they went to their closer, Mitch Williams. A walk and a single later, Joe Carter stepped into the box and ended the 1993 World Series on a walk-off home run. Joe touched ‘em all, and he never hit a bigger home run in his life.

Mitch Williams, on the other hand, had to wait five months to toe the rubber again. In his first appearance of 1994, he blew a tie game in the top of the 12th inning, walking three and giving up two runs. After eight years with a 3.34 ERA and 186 saves heading into the 1993 World Series, he only cobbled together 37 more innings over the next (and last) three years of his career, with an ERA of 7.96.

There’s always been a bit of a disconnect between the Robbie Ray deal’s fanfare and the actual contract he signed. After an inconsistent career, he finally broke through in 2021, winning the AL Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays. That earned him the biggest free-agent deal Jerry Dipoto’s given out with the Seattle Mariners, and upon signing, many heralded him as the long-absent ace to head Seattle’s rotation.

But there’s that “inconsistent career” bit to consider too, and it’s reflected in the fact that he only signed a 5-year/$115 million deal with an opt-out after 2024. No doubt that’s a lot of money, but it’s hardly the contract commanded by someone who’s expected to compete for the Cy Young Award again. That deal looks more like Max Scherzer’s, signed that same offseason for 3 years and $130 million, almost double the average annual value.

So the deal that Ray signed was less “ace” than “expected to keep a lot, but hardly all, of his 2021 gains.” And, hey, that’s mostly what he did.

The Rangers were up 7-5 in Game 6 and three outs away from winning their first World Series. Neftali Feliz allowed two base runners but struck out two, putting Texas one out away. Then David Freese carved his name into the history books with a triple to right field that tied the game, eventually leading to the Cardinals taking home 2011’s Commissioner’s Trophy.

Neftali Feliz had to spend five months thinking about that triple. When he finally got to pitch in a game again, he came back as a man on fire: In his first game of 2012, he shut out the Mariners over seven innings, and went on to six more pretty good seasons.

The key to Robbie’s 2021 breakout was almost annoyingly straightforward: throw hard, throw strikes. By adding some extra torque in his wind-up, he bumped his fastball velocity up to 94.8, though it dipped toward the end of the year. In 2022, he kept the new delivery and consequently kept most of the velocity. How important has that been? Check out his game-by-game velocity tracked against his strikeout rate:

A chart showing correlation between Robbie Ray’s 4-seamer velocity and strikeout rate for each game in 2022
Sometimes baseball isn’t that complicated.
Chart: Zach Mason for Lookout Landing * Sources: Baseball Savant and FanGraphs * Created with Google Sheets

That’s not a perfect fit, but you get the idea, not that it’s a revolutionary one. As I said, analytically, Ray’s breakout is kind of annoying. Throw ball hard; strike batter out. To be sure, he’s always racked up strikeouts, but when he throws in the zone more (which we’ll get to), velocity becomes more important. The biggest extended gap between those two lines comes from June when he first introduced his two-seamer that seemed to bumfuzzle a league that wasn’t expecting it.

In the end, however, his much-ballyhooed sinker turned out not to be that helpful. It certainly threw the league for a loop when he introduced it, but the league adjusted. Starting in July, hitters consistently managed a wOBA in the mid-to-upper .400s against it, much worse than the .342 on sinkers league-wide. So as the season wore on, Ray started throwing it less, though giving hitters a third pitch to think about surely helped his primary pitches play up. But he really was a sight to see when he first starting throwing it.

Edgar Martinez’s walk-off, two-RBI double to win the 1995 ALDS is the most iconic hit in Mariner history. If you weren’t there, trust me, it was even bigger than Cal Raleigh’s drought-buster.

Jack McDowell, who surrendered The Double, had to stew on it for five months. He took the L in his first game back, and things didn’t get better. In eight seasons before The Double, he never had an ERA over 4. After The Double, he never again had an ERA under 5.

Ray also managed to keep most of his 2021 improvements to his walk rate. He allowed more free passes this year, but the 8.0% he put up in 2022 was still the second-lowest of his career, and with 2021, his first two times in single digits since 2016. Once again, improvements to his four-seamer are largely to thank—he kept it in the zone 56.5% of the time, close to his 2021 career high—though he nearly matched his career high zone% on his slider too.

Robbie doesn’t have George Kirby’s command, but if he just aims his fastball at the middle of the zone, he throws enough strikes to keep his walk rate manageable. With the added velocity, he can afford the risk that he catches too much of the plate as hitters will swing through it often enough.

Throw hard, throw strikes.

Keeping most of his 2021 improvements not only kept his strikeout rate high and walk rate tolerable, it also helped with his biggest bugaboo: a contact-management problem. Three times in his career, Ray has ranked in the bottom 10% in xwOBACON (a statistic measuring hitters’ expected results on contact). In 2022, he improved to the 40th percentile among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings, even while surrendering the third-most homers in MLB.

In all, Ray threw 189 innings of 3.71-ERA baseball in 2022. That was enough to rank 41st in bWAR out of 448 pitchers in the American League. That’s not an ace, but again, he didn’t sign an ace’s contract. In light of this past offseason—one where Dansby Swanson secured himself the same average annual value as Bryce Harper—the 4/$94 million that Ray’s still guaranteed looks plenty reasonable for the Mariners. And the arrival of Luis Castillo further eases the pressure on Ray to be the staff ace.

Luis Castillo embraces Robbie Ray Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

After dispatching a 116-win team in the ALCS, Joe Torre asked Mariano Rivera to secure Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But Luis Gonzalez blooped a ball just out of Derek Jeter’s reach to walk off the 2001 season for the Diamondbacks.

Rivera had to sit with that blown save for five months before he took the mound again. When games finally resumed, he was lights out. His April 2002 line? 11 IP, 12 K, 4 BB, 7 H, 2 R. That’s a 1.64 ERA with eight saves, and he ultimately received the first-ever unanimous vote for the Hall of Fame.

Whatever you think of Robbie Ray’s 2022, his final series leaves a mark. In ALDS Game 1, he only threw two pitches, the second one of which left Yordan Álvarez’s bat at 116.7 miles per hour, turning a 7-5 Seattle lead into an 8-7 Houston win.

There’s little sense re-litigating the decision to bring him in or his decision to throw his sinker. Jake Mailhot covered that well at FanGraphs the next day.

At this point, I’m more interested in how he recovers. He got out both batters he faced at the very end of Game 3, though the game and season were basically over at that point after Jeremy Peña’s home run off Penn Murfee. (You’d be forgiven for being in a fugue state and forgetting that Ray pitched in that game at all. I did.) Game 1 was his last one that mattered, and he’s had to stew on it for months. So come 2023, will he go the way of Rivera and Feliz, or the way of McDowell and Williams? With months to think about it, does he have a better comeback than “the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you”?

He’s certainly a professional, and he’s been spotted in a “DMGB” t-shirt, the Mariners motto for “Doesn’t Matter. Get Better.” And yet, he is also—I have it on good authority—a human being. How could this not be weighing on him even a little? The Mariners Discourse that week was merciless on Ray. But as springtime reminds us, getting buried in shit can be a great way to grow into something beautiful.