Welcome to Seattle, noted ace, Robbie Ray
By now, you’ve surely heard the news. If you have, welcome back! If you haven’t, what the fuck! Isabelle Minasian blurbed it hours ago! Regardless of your level of insight of free agency news from today, I’m here to tell you that Mariners have got their ace: they’ve inked Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to a five-year contract worth $115 million that includes an opt-out after the third season.
Don’t just take my word for it! From Jeff Passan:
Reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and the Seattle Mariners are finalizing a five-year, $115 million contract with an opt-out after the third season, sources familiar with the deal tell ESPN.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 29, 2021
Ray represents the largest free agent signing handed out by Jerry Dipoto, and, with Trevor Story and Kris Bryant still available, hopefully that doesn’t last for long. Regardless, this is a morale booster for Mariners players and fans alike, and it indicates to remaining free agents that they’re serious about contending. There’s also that it gives them a starting pitcher who has the chance to put up elite numbers in 2022. And that matters a lot.
If you’re not overly familiar with Ray, he’s spent years of his career as a SIERA darling. It’s just that, for the most part, his results have never reflected his peripherals. That’s because Ray has always had something of a contact management issue — that’s manifested itself as a home run problem — and he’s spent the bulk of his career with an inflated walk rate.
During spring training of the shortened 2020 season, Ray attempted to address this. He came into the season with his arm action dramatically shortened, much like the adjustment that Lucas Giolito made that helped turn him into an ace. Despite my optimism that this would be the fix for him, it didn’t end up helping. What did help is a tweak that he made in his delivery that added “some extra life to his fastball,” which is reflected by the tick that he gained on his fastball.
The article linked above doesn’t provide any details in terms of what Ray changed in his delivery, just that he mentioned that he did. In looking, though, it’s fairly clear if you compare his deliveries.
First, his 2019 delivery:
His initial 2020 delivery, with the shortened arm action:
His 2020 delivery, back to his original arm action:
And his 2021 delivery:
Between the four deliveries above, no two are identical. Ray’s 2019 delivery is fairly low effort; nothing like the deliveries that he used in 2020 or 2021. The next year, Ray toyed with various adjustments, but nothing quite worked. He tried going over his head with his hands and shortening his arm action, but that didn’t pay dividends, so he reverted to his old arm action and tightened up his delivery some by using smaller, more controlled movements. That second iteration in 2020 came with a much quicker delivery that looked like it was on one-and-a-half times the speed.
Things came together for Ray in 2021, in part, because he tightened everything up and made his delivery more repeatable. It figures that making his delivery more repeatable helped him get in the zone more, and that’s backed up in the numbers. Here’s Ray’s 15-game rolling zone percentage graph, by season:
Ray’s zone percentage had been dropping since 2016. Getting it back up to a career-high allowed him to shave his walk percentage to a career-low 6.7 percent. That’s important. But it’s also important to consider where that came from, which was almost uniquely his fastball: its zone percentage was also a career-high 59.9 percent, which ranks in the 88th percentile. Ray may not have great command — in fact, it’s almost certainly below-average — but what he does have is control. That’s good enough when you can pair it with plus secondaries and plus velocity, something Ray hasn’t always had. But it looks like it may stick around with his most recent mechanical tweak.
A screenshot of him at his leg peak in 2020:
And at his leg peak in 2021:
Ray’s uptick in velocity is, perhaps, due to him adding a Félix Hernández-esque twist to his delivery, where his hips are more squared towards second base at the peak of his leg kick rather than towards first base. Theoretically, that extra torque should allow him to generate more energy as moves into his delivery, and an efficient delivery should allow him to transfer into that into harder pitches. That, of course, has been the case.
Ray’s 15-game rolling fastball velocity, by season:
What’s interesting about this graph is that, throughout his career, Ray has been a velocity gainer as the season progresses. These past three years, the opposite has been true. This may be a worry for some people — and those concerns are valid — but Ray’s velocity started to come back towards the end of the year. Paired with a few weapons in his curveball and slider — specifically, the latter — Ray seems fit to age well, and so does this contract.
It happened later than he’d like, but Robbie Ray has finally found a delivery in which he can leverage his potential into strong outcomes. There are still issues to overcome — namely, home runs could still be an issue. — but there aren’t many environments better fit to absorb Ray and help him mitigate that issue than T-Mobile Park. Perhaps the Mariners have a tweak in mind, and surely that will be something that I write about at a later time, but for now, I’m going to bask in the moment. The Mariners got their ace, and they’re still looking to make significant additions. It’s a good time to be a Mariners fan.