Robbie Ray was a league winner in 2017. According to NFBC ADP data Ray was the 55th drafted pitcher, behind the likes of Jerad Eickhoff, J.A. Happ, and Vince Velazquez. He ended up outperforming those players en route to being one of the top fantasy starters in the MLB. Ray finished the season with a 2.89 ERA in 162 innings. He struck out 218 batters while only allowing 71 walks. Ray’s K/9 of 12.11 was second highest, behind only Chris Sale. While his ERA was the 6th lowest in the majors. If you were one of the blessed souls to properly identify and acquire Ray during the 2017 season, you acquired a top 10 starting pitcher according to Yahoo and ESPN. But the real question is, can Robbie Ray repeat his break-out season in 2018?
The first thing that I want to make clear, Robbie Ray’s strikeout rate is very real. Since making his Diamondbacks debut in 2015 he has pitched 464 innings while maintaining a 10.8 K/9. Steamer projects Ray to hold an 11.17 K/9 in 2018 which is right around where I would peg him too. But if the lefty managed to produce another 12+ K/9 season, I would not be shocked in the slightest. His strikeouts will keep him relevant or interesting in fantasy circles regardless of his ERA.
From 2016 to 2017 Ray saw a drastic drop in his ERA from 4.9 to 2.89, but what first we have to look at some changes that he made in the 2016 off-season. First, Ray started to throw his curveball more, and his fastball less. His fastball saw a -11.8% usage rate (from 71.1% in 2016 to 59.3% in 2017) and his curveball saw a +16.6 usage rate ( From 5.3% in 2016 to 21.9% in 2017) .The usage rate changes ushered in Ray’s best season of his short career, and all three of his pitches were considered above average. His fastball, curveball, and slider were all considered top 20 pitches according to FanGraphs and his fastball’s wFB or Fastball runs above average, had a value of 12.1, the 8th highest fastball in the league for starting pitchers.
So in short, we saw Ray’s game-plan for the 2017 season was to use his changeup and fastball less while ramping up his curveball usage, and it was effective.
However, I would argue that while it was effective, Ray still overperformed his peripherals in 2017. The lefties profile underwent such dramatic change from 2016 to 2017 it is still hard to understand what is real and what is bound for regression. His LOB% rose from 68.6% in 2016 (14th worst in MLB) to 84.5% in 2017 (2nd best), his BABIP dropped from .352 to .267 even with his hard hit-percentage jumping up 3.8%.
Left On-base percentage (LOB%) is an interesting statistic because some people in the baseball community consider it a skill, while others tend to view it as bound for regression towards league average. The league average for LOB% is typically around 70% but can have a subtle variance with players who strikeout batters, because it makes it easier to work out of a jam. That seems right up Robbie Ray’s alley. I would not peg him to lead the league in LOB%, but I would not be shocked to see his being above league average.
If you were around fantasy baseball circles prior to the 2017 season, you would have most likely heard that Robbie Ray was someone who’s FIP and xFIP always looked great but his ERA was lagging behind. People theorized that it was because of things like lack of a third pitch, or he struggled a third time through the order. In 2016, Ray had an ERA of 4.9 with a FIP 3.76 and a xFIP of 3.45. Now, We are here today talking about a Robbie Ray that has finally added that third pitch that people theorized was his problem. His 2017 season showed an improvement on his ERA at 2.89 but his FIP of 3.72 and xFIP of 3.49 showed barely any change. So in a span of two seasons, Robbie Ray has gone from a pitcher that underperformed based on his FIP/xFIP to a pitcher who is now overperforming.
Ray has shown signs pointing to regression to his 2.89 ERA but I am not predicting anything dramatic, if he can keep his ERA within the 3.5 range you still have an elite fantasy pitcher. His K- upside is through the roof and he is a player I envision myself having lots of shares heading into the 2018 fantasy baseball season.