Robbie Ray's Breakout Season Has Been Fascinating to Watch
As a hurler who posted a 3.1 fWAR last year, one of the things we could point to and be encouraged about was his strikeout rate -- the 28.4% mark was easily a single-season career high, which was supported by an 11.6% swinging-strike rate (also a new career high). But despite a reasonable 3.59 SIERA, Ray allowed walks 9.2% of the time, saw opposing hitters generate hard contact 36.6% of the time, and was the owner of a 4.90 ERA.
The southpaw has followed that campaign with a true breakout performance in 2017, though -- he's already been worth 3.7 fWAR to Arizona entering his start on Wednesday. Earlier this year, we noted that his production was confusing upon looking at some peripherals. This is still the case as the regular season winds down, which makes it even more impressive.
Lots of Hard Contact
Owning an elevated hard-hit rate isn't anything new for Ray. After all, he allowed hard contact at a 35.8% rate through 330.2 career innings before taking the mound this season. Last year's 36.6% mark was a new single-season high, but he's currently on pace to break that once again. Entering his start Wednesday at Petco Park against the San Diego Padres, no qualified starting pitcher has allowed more contact than Ray (41.4% through 151 innings).
And if we look all the way back to 2002 (which is as far back as quality of contact data goes on FanGraphs), no qualified starter has finished a single season with a hard-hit rate allowed above 39.0%, that being Livan Hernandez in 2007 for, coincidentally enough, the Diamondbacks.
One would imagine that Ray would have some trouble with the long ball, too, upon peeking at the rest of his batted-ball profile and seeing a 40.6% fly-ball rate allowed. However, he's only given up 18 dingers prior to Wednesday's action after surrendering 24 in 174.1 innings pitched last year.
And outside of a dominant stretch during September, Ray has been consistent in this department. Through the season's first five months, his hard-hit rate allowed never dipped below 38.9%, but through 20.2 innings so far this month, he's allowing hard contact just 29.0% of the time.
But Still Having a Great Season
The hard contact may be going up, but the overall contact that Ray has allowed is going down. After posting a career 78.3% contact rate entering this year, that number has dropped all the way to 67.9%, easily on pace to be a new personal best. So, if he's going to allow a lot of loud contact, at least hitters aren't connecting as often, right?
His walk rate has somehow continued to climb (currently at 10.4%), but he's managed to also increase his strikeout rate (33.4%) and swinging-strike rate (14.2%) en route to a stellar performance that's summed up by a 3.43 SIERA and 2.74 ERA.
Ray's ability to capitalize on starts that don't take place at the hitter-friendly Chase Field also helps. His home park ranks third in park factor and seventh in home-run factor over the past three years. In 70 innings pitched at home, the southpaw has produced a 4.37 ERA while allowing a .320 wOBA and 12.2% walk rate. And after seeing that opposing hitters have posted a 46.2% hard-hit and 39.0% fly-ball rate in Arizona, it shouldn't be shocking that 12 of the 18 homers he's allowed this year have come at Chase Field.
But what would've been a mediocre season is saved by his incredible performance on the road. The batted-ball profile is better, but still dangerous (42.1% fly-ball rate and 36.6% hard-hit rate), yet he's managed to post a 1.33 ERA, a .231 wOBA allowed, and an 8.6% walk rate in 81 innings. When we consider the fact that he'll be at Petco Park on Wednesday to face a Padres squad that owns a team wRC+ of 80 and a 25.1% strikeout rate to lefties, he's got a great shot to keep this trend going for at least another start.
Dancing in a Room All By Himself
The one thing we haven't mentioned with regard to Ray's 2017 performance is his BABIP. Despite seeing some trends in his batted-ball profile that could lead to poor results in this department, his current .276 mark is nearly 100 points lower than last year (.352). He's actually gone from having the highest BABIP among qualified starters in 2016 to one of the 20 lowest in 2017 (once he gets enough innings to qualify again).
Now that's what you call a turnaround. But still, when we look at his peripherals, it has to make you shake your head.
We've already established the fact that no qualified starter has finished a season with a hard-hit rate allowed above 40.0% since 2002. With that in mind, we decided to see how many hurlers have finished a season with 150-plus innings, a hard-hit rate allowed of at least 35.0%, and a BABIP lower than .300 during this period of time.
That search brought back 15 names, and after taking a look at the data, Ray will easily be head-and-shoulders ahead of everyone else. The highest hard-hit rate allowed on this list is 37.6% from Matt Wisler last year, so even if Ray's current rate falls below 40.0%, it seems likely that he'll win that category. The lowest BABIP allowed is .256 by Brandon Finnegan, but Ray's current .276 mark would be tied for sixth lowest with Kyle Lohse.
Ray's 3.35 FIP would easily be the best, while his 3.41 xFIP would be second to Johan Santana's 2007 season. His 33.4% strikeout rate would be the best, while his 10.4% walk rate would be the second-worst.
So, what we've been seeing from the 25-year-old is rather unique. Not only has he been allowing hard contact at a rate we haven't seen before, but he's put together a group of stats that truly sets him apart from the rest of this group.