Robbie Ray's Performance Is Still Really Confusing

While he's striking a lot of hitters out again, Diamondbacks hurler Robbie Ray's peripheral stats continue to make him someone who will frustrate fantasy baseball owners.

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Robbie Ray was the epitome of a high-risk, high-reward kind of hurler in fantasy baseball on draft day. Through his first nine starts this season, he's held on firmly to that reputation.

The main attraction to Ray in season-long leagues centered around his sudden ability to strike hitters out. He struck out 7.9 hitters per nine innings through 2014 and 2015, which wasn't bad, but paled in comparison to the 11.25 mark he posted through a career-high 174.1 frames last season.

What kept him out of the top-200 picks (according to NFBC data) during drafts this spring, though, were his inability to limit walks (a nearly 9.0% walk rate for his career entering '17) and that not-so-enticing 4.90 ERA.

So far this year, though? The strikeouts are still there -- he's striking out 11.04 hitters per nine innings -- but his walks allowed are up substantially. And, somehow, his ERA is currently sitting at a very acceptable 3.91 through 53 innings of work.

Living Up to the Peripherals

While a number of Ray's traditional stats from last year didn't look great, some of his peripheral stats painted a different picture. When using advanced ERA estimators like skill-interactive ERA (SIERA), fielding independent pitching (FIP) and xFIP, we can draw the conclusion that he actually pitched better than it appeared.

In fact, the difference between his actual ERA and SIERA was the second-highest among all qualified starting pitchers last year. He ran into his fair share of tough luck, but it's looked a little different so far in 2017. The below table shows his performance last year with what he's done to this point in the statistics just mentioned.

Year Innings Pitched ERA SIERA FIP xFIP
2016 174.1 4.90 3.59 3.76 3.45
2017 53.0 3.91 4.00 4.00 3.83

This is quite the switch over a short period of time, but because his actual ERA is so close to the other advanced metrics, it can lead us to believe that he can sustain his current level of performance.

If he's indeed going to do that, he'll need to address what's going on in his batted-ball profile.

Tons of Hard Contact

Ray's current swinging-strike rate of 12.9% is on pace to be a single-season career high, while his 68.4% contact rate is also on track to be a new personal best. That's awesome, but it could be a byproduct of the swing rate against him taking a steep dip (up around 45.0% entering 2017, but just 40.6% at this point in the year).

And while the contact has gone down, the quality of that contact has skyrocketed.

The southpaw is no stranger to having an elevated hard-hit rate -- his 36.6% mark last season was tied for second highest among qualified hurlers -- but he's right at the top of the leaderboards again this season with an even more eye-popping 46.2% hard-hit rate. If we combine that with how his batted-ball profile has changed so far this year compared to last year, it's even more concerning.

The below table compares his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%) and fly-ball rate (FB%) between 2016 and 2017.

Year Innings Pitched LD% GB% FB%
2016 174.1 21.7% 45.7% 32.6%
2017 53.0 21.4% 40.5% 38.1%

When we add in the fact that Ray's BABIP allowed last season settled in at .352 (while having nothing below .311 in a single year entering '17), it seems like only a matter of time before his current .276 mark starts going up.

Finding Some Consistency

So, while the left-hander is having a solid start upon peeking at a few metrics, it certainly seems as if he's making it harder on himself than it should be. What would go a long way for him is to find some sort of consistency with regard to his performance.

Of Ray's nine starts, five of them have been of the quality variety, but he's failed to pitch at least six innings in any of the other four. He hasn't experienced more than two quality starts in a row, and has allowed fewer than three walks on just two different occasions.

Given the areas in which he excels on the mound and the situation he finds himself in (on a team with a great offense), he'll still continue to be an asset to fantasy teams, but he'll also remain a frustrating one that won't fall into the "plug-and-play" category any time soon.