What’s going on with Mariners ace Robbie Ray this season?

Jun 2, 2022, 12:50 PM
Mariners Robbie Ray...
Robbie Ray reacts after giving up a two-run triple against the Mets on May 15, 2022. (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
(Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

It was another tough outing with another big inning by Mariners ace Robbie Ray in his latest start.

Baltimore hits 4 homers to cruise past Mariners 9-2

Ray, the 2021 American League Cy Young Award winner who signed a lucrative five-year deal with the Mariners in free agency, has not lived up to that Cy Young billing through his first 11 starts for Seattle. He’s now 4-6 with a 4.96 ERA following the Mariners’ 9-2 loss to Baltimore.

So what exactly is going on with Ray in 2022 after turning in such a dominant season a year ago? It’s more confusing than it may appear.

The big inning

The “big inning” has plagued Ray for most of the year, as the vast majority of the runs he’s allowed this season have come from the one big inning in each of his starts.

Ray has allowed runs in 16 of his 65 2/3 innings this season. In nine of those innings, Ray has allowed two or more runs and in six of them, he’s allowed three or more. Of the 36 runs allowed this season, 30 have come in those innings where the opponent is scoring two or more times, and 22 are from innings with three or more runs scored.

In his outing Wednesday in Baltimore, Ray allowed four runs in five innings while striking out six and walking three. He allowed three runs in the second inning, all coming on a Rougned Odor home run.

“It’s actually kind of an amazing trend that has developed,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said Thursday of Ray’s big inning woes during his weekly conversation on The Mike Salk Show. “And in those moments, he’s just trying to do too much.”

Ray was clearly frustrated by his outing in Baltimore but stressed that he feels fine physically and that his stuff isn’t an issue.

“I just have to trust the process and go about my business every single day like I do and things are gonna turn,” Ray said after the game. “This was my 11th start, so I probably have at least 20 to 22 left. That’s two-thirds of the year. I mean, I’ve got plenty of time.”

2021 vs. 2022 numbers aren’t that far off

The biggest difference between Ray’s 2021 and 2022 seasons are, of course, the amount of runs he’s allowing. After posting a 2.84 ERA in 2021, Ray’s ERA is approaching 5.00.

Many of Ray’s other numbers are on par with what he did a year ago, though, when he was the American League’s best pitcher before coming over to the Mariners.

Ray’s fielding independent pitching (FIP) has gone from 3.69 to 4.26, and his WHIP is up from 1.045 to 1.249. Decent jumps, but neither is really that alarming.

He’s allowing 7.9 hits per nine innings after a 7.0 clip in 2021, and his strikeouts per nine is down from 11.5 to 10.1 (the latter is still a solid mark).

Ray has always had a tendency to allow homers, but despite what you may think having watched his first 11 starts for the Mariners in 2022, his homers per nine is the same as it was in 2021 at 1.5. Ray is also still eating innings, averaging 5.97 per start after averaging 6.04 in 2021.

“The underlying information for Robbie suggests that he’s still pretty good,” Dipoto said. “It’s a high strikeout (rate), he’s managed his walk rate. The last five weeks he’s been excellent. His expected ERA is about a run lower than his actual era.”

Indeed, Ray’s expected ERA, per Statcast, is 4.00. While that may not scream “Cy Young,” it’s worth noting that’s only a slight increase from his 2021 xERA of 3.60. And when you look at some other advanced numbers, Ray’s 2022 season is very similar to 2021.

Ray allowed a good amount of hard contact last year, and that’s continued with the average exit velocity off of him ticking up slightly from 90.4 mph to 90.9. But Ray’s hard hit rate is down from 43.1% to 40.5%, his barrel rate is down from 9.8% to 9.2% and his whiff rate (swings and misses) is up from 32.3% to 33.3.

Ray is having less success with the strikeout, as noted, with his K rate decreasing from 32.1% to 27.1%. He’s not getting hitters to chase out of the strike zone, with his chase rate decreasing from 30.1% to 27.8.

Damage coming early

Ray’s throwing a lot of strikes. His strike rate is barely down from 66% last year to 64.4, and his first-pitch strike rate is well up from 61.6% to 67. But opponents are being really aggressive against him, and unless he has two strikes on a hitter, they’re often getting the better of him.

Opponents are 15 for 40 (.375) on first pitches with six extra-base hits against Ray, and they are swinging at the first pitch Ray delivers 45.8% of the time, up substantially from 33.5% in 2021. For example, Ray allowed the three-run homer to Odor on Wednesday in the second inning, and that came on the first pitch of the at-bat.

Additionally, even when Ray does get ahead in the count right away, opponents are hitting .348 off him in 0-1 counts. In even 1-1 counts, which are nearly as important as the first pitch, opponents are up to a .455 average. And in more hitter-friendly counts of 2-1 and 3-1, opponents are hitting .308 and .333, respectively.

Unless hitters have two strikes on them, they’re getting to Ray at a decent rate.

The stuff

While the Mariners don’t seem too concerned with Ray’s fastball velocity, the average velo is down from 94.8 mph in 2021 to 93.1. As you’d expect, hitters are hitting that pitch more than a year ago, though not by much.

Opponents are hitting .238 off Ray’s heater, up from .222 in 2021. They’re also slugging just a tad bit worse at .426 compared to .431. Additionally, the hard hit rate off Ray’s fastball is down from 2021, and he’s getting a few more swings and misses with it (25.2% in 2022, up from 24%).

In addition to his fastball, Ray leans heavily on his hard slider. In fact, he’s throwing it more than he did in 2021, but the success hasn’t been on the same level. Opponents are hitting .212 off it, up from .173, and the slugging has gone up a bit from .321 to .414, with the whiff rate and hard hit rate nearly the same as in 2021.

Due to Ray’s overall performance and the results with each pitch, Ray’s run values for his fastball and slider are much worse than a year ago. Run value, per Statcast, is defined as “the run impact of an event based on the runners on base, outs, ball and strike count.” Ray’s fastball was one of the most valuable pitches in baseball in 2021, with a run value of minus-22. Now it’s minus-2. His slider had a minus-12 run value last year. That number has increased to plus-4.

Damage by walk

Where Ray has seen some notable regression is with walks, and they’ve hurt him this season.

“I could probably cut back on the walks,” Ray said Wednesday. “I had three walks. Just not acceptable. But, you know, ultimately, I feel like everything feels good. Everything feels like it’s coming out of the hand really good. So like I said, trust the process and trust that it’s gonna turn.”

Before Ray put it all together for Toronto last year, walks were the issue for the talented lefty. He reduced his walks per nine to 2.4 in 2021, but that mark is back up to 3.3 this season.

That’s a decent jump, but what stands out the most with his walks in 2022 is those free passes are hurting Ray far more than they did last year.

Ray walked 52 total batters in 2021. Only six came around to score, or 11.5%. Compare that to 2022 where he has walked 24 and nine have scored (37.5%). Additionally, six of the last 11 men Ray has walked ended up scoring.

That has contributed to the “big inning” problem Ray has had. In those moments, Dipoto thinks Ray is trying too hard to be perfect and that it’s having an adverse effect.

“You don’t need to do that when you’re at the level of performer that these guys are,” Dipoto said. “But again, they’re human beings and they put a lot of pressure on themselves, and it’s just taking a breath and letting it happen. You don’t have to outdo the best version of yourself … I don’t think Robbie really needs to bounce back. Robbie just needs to take a breath in those big moments because he doesn’t have to be Cy Young every inning of every game. He just needs to deliver the best he can and not put so much pressure on himself.”

Final thoughts

It’s hard to look at the totality of Ray’s numbers he’s put together this year and say he’s been so much worse than 2021. There’s just too many things he did well last year that he’s still doing well in 2022.

If it seems like Ray is on the cusp of breaking out again, that makes a lot of sense seeing as, aside from the one big inning in most of his starts, he’s been fairly dominant.

Has Ray lived up to the expectations that come with being a Cy Young Award winner and signing a big five-year deal? No, of course not. But Ray’s overall body of work this season really isn’t as bad as it might initially seem.

That being said, sports are a results-based system and most don’t care whether you’re unlucky or what your expected numbers are. Trust me, I get it. You are what your record and numbers are. But there are still encouraging signs for Ray as he moves forward this season.

Limiting walks will obviously be key as they are biting him much worse than they did a year ago, and hitters are really making him pay early in counts. Additionally, hitters just frankly are doing more damage to his two main pitches of the fastball and slider, but not at high clips by any means.

If Ray can cut the walks down and be more effective early in counts, he should start stringing together more quality outings, and avoiding those big innings where the bulk of the damage against him is coming from.

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What’s going on with Mariners ace Robbie Ray this season?