Stats and Trends: Could Robbie Ray Break Out Next Year?

Robbie Ray had a dramatic shift in his second-half peripherals. Could he be a breakout player in 2016?

PItching is fascinating. In its purest form, its the interruption of timing. Sure, that's incredibly simplistic and strips out a great portion of the nuance that separates the greats from the rest, but it also provides a glimpse into what it is on its surface. 

Furthermore, what's amazing about pitching is that, due to the different nuances involved, it can come from virtually anywhere. Two of the finest pitchers left in the postseason, for instance, fit the bill there. Jake Arrieta was given up on by the organization which used a fifth-round pick on him after a little over 350 innings, and now he's got a real shot to win the National League Cy Young award. Jacob deGrom will likely finish near the top five in the balloting, yet he had a 4.48 ERA and 6.1 K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) the year the Mets drafted him out of Stetson. He was never a top-10 prospect in the Mets organization according to Baseball America, either, but he took the league by storm in winning the 2014 NL Rookie of the Year, and he was even better this season.

So pitching can definitely come from a number of places, ranging from premium prospects to post-hype sleepers to guys who learn a new pitch to guys who are simply late bloomers. 

This exercise will be an attempt to find guys that might have made some subtle (or even not-so-subtle) changes in-season that could lead to big dividends down the road -- for the player first and foremost but also possibly for fantasy owners as well.

A Robbie Ray Breakout?

A quick rummaging through Robbie Ray's PITCHf/x page on FanGraphs revealed something pretty striking. In the first half of 2015, Ray induced grounders at a 34 percent rate. Ho hum. Ray's numbers weren't great in the Cactus League, but his stuff seemed good. He seemed to have a fairly solid shot to crack a Diamondbacks rotation that was stacked, but with just middling options. And while he didn’t crack the rotation right away, he came up in June for good and put together a relatively solid season. A 3.52 ERA in 23 starts with 8.4 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 isn't exactly a recipe for an ace -- in either fantasy or real-life, that is -- but it's a possible stepping stone. 

What more can be known about this pitcher? What adjustments has he made? Is his hold on a rotation spot sturdy or shaky? A +2.1 fWAR (FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement) would seem to give him a great shot at cracking a Diamondbacks rotation -- at least right now -- that still has more questions than answers moving into 2016. Is teammate Rubby De La Rosa really going to start on Opening Day next year? All the more reason to feel confident in Ray’s prospects of sticking.

Ray was decidedly not a groundball guy in his cup of coffee with Detroit, and that was OK. Detroit has one of the league’s biggest outfields. And while that maybe wasn’t the greatest marriage with Ray’s skill set -- like a 1.8 HR/9 rate in nine appearances (six starts) -- it wasn’t as though it couldn’t succeed. That’s markedly less true in Arizona, as Chase Field plays small for left-handed home run hitters and even more so for gap hitters from either side. Ray didn’t show any insane splits in 2015 from a handedness standpoint (.309 wOBA against lefties, .321 versus righties), but he did pitch markedly better outside of Chase Field (.286 wOBA, 2.49 ERA) than he did at home (.355 wOBA, 4.88 ERA).

But an adjustment Ray made in September suggests maybe he’s got a better plan to attack his home park starting next season. Ray’s second half groundball rate jumped to 49.3 percent; not only an insane improvement from a personal standpoint, but now over league average as well. For a pitcher in a strong hitting park with a better-than-league-average whiff rate, there's some potential for him to sneak up fantasy lists, especially if he can exhibit better control. 

That’s no small task, however -- his 3.5 BB/9 mark in 2015 was the second-lowest of his entire career. That’s right, including the minors. Posting an identical walk rate from the year before worked out for Ray because he’s added more than two strikeouts per nine -- thanks in large part to the development of a spiffy slider (18.1 percent whiff rate via PITCHf/x).

But back to the groundball improvement. After posting sub-40 percent rates in June and July -- his first two full months -- Ray had his high-water mark in August at 52.4 percent before settling in at 48.8 percent over the season’s final month. Two months of a sample size is significant enough to wonder if something else was going on.

PITCHf/x says, and it’s no surprise really, that Ray’s best groundball pitch is the two-seam fastball. The slider has so-so luck at inducing worm burners as well, but the two-seamer is where he’s searing dirt. According to the full season breakdown, Ray threw four-seamers 62.5 percent of the time and two-seamers just less than 10 percent.

Brooks Baseball uses monthly dividers for what pitchers have done adjustment-wise, and it fleshes out a big change for Ray. It views Ray’s two-seamer as a sinker, and says he went from using it just 10 percent of the time in June to roughly 30 percent -- dead even with the four-seamer -- in September and October. Did Ray have an epiphany?

It sure seems like it. That doesn't mean there aren't questions, however. Ray paired those grounders in the second half with a staggering 9.4 K/9. That’s a beautiful marriage in the sabermetric community, but there are some issues. After walking just 2.2 batters per nine in the first half, Ray walked 4.3 per nine after the break. Only Tom Koehler, James Shields and Taylor Jungmann walked more batters per nine in the second half.

So what’s the verdict? This appears to be a pitcher who is able to evolve based on environment, but the lapses in control are still troublesome. Still, with recent adjustments and a strong hold on a rotation spot, this looks like a fine back-end gamble to take in fantasy drafts next spring.