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ESPN’s Schoenfield: Robbie Ray potential breakout pitcher in 2017

Arizona Diamondbacks starter Robbie Ray follows through on a pitch to the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

While he may not be the biggest name on the Arizona Diamondbacks pitching staff, Robbie Ray may have the most explosive stuff on the team.

The question is whether his overall performance will ever catch up to his raw ability.

ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield believes in the young pitcher’s potential, naming him one of his eight potential breakout pitchers for the 2017 season.

If you’ve read SweetSpot all offseason, you knew this name was coming. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings, Ray’s 11.25 K’s per nine trailed only the late Jose Fernandez and Yu Darvish, two pitchers known for their electric stuff. Well, Ray has electric stuff as well. That list of southpaws with big velocity? Ray joined (James) Paxton and (Danny) Duffy as the only other lefty to average at least 94 mph with his heater.

So Ray has obvious swing-and-miss stuff. He also proved more hittable than you’d expect — 185 hits in 174.1 innings — and walked too many guys (71). When hitters did make contact, they hit the ball hard. When they hit fly balls, they hit it very hard. (Tony) Blengino’s contact report rated Ray the worst among National League starters. As one example, hitters hit .477 and slugged .785 on 1-1 counts, compared to the MLB average of .334 and .536. Some of this is fastball command. Ray can blow it by hitters a lot of the time, but you can’t blow it by them all of the time.

Pitch selection could also have been an issue and as a fastball/slider guy, maybe he’ll have to mix in a few more curveballs (he rarely throws a changeup) or two-seam fastballs. New catchers Jeff Mathis and Chris Iannetta, both longtime veterans, could help in this area. Guys like Ray don’t always figure it out and Arizona is a good hitters’ park, but he could turn into one of the game’s best power lefties.

Ray’s surface stats certainly don’t point to a pitcher on the verge of becoming a star.

He went 8-15, and his 4.90 ERA and 1.47 WHIP were both fifth-worst among qualified pitchers last season, but his 218 strikeouts were tied with New York Mets star Noah Syndergaard for ninth in the majors.

However, a deeper dive into the numbers shows that luck and the Diamondbacks’ defensive struggles had a significant negative impact on Ray’s play during his third season in the majors.

For example, his 3.61 defense-independent ERA was 18th-best in the majors, and his .345 batting average on balls in play was tops in the league.

The 25-year-old has pitched well so far this spring, going 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in 16.2 innings and could be on pace to match Schoenfield’s “way-too-early” prediction that he would be a 2017 All Star.

The seven players who join Ray on Schoenfield’s list of breakout pitchers include Jameson Taillon and Ivan Nova of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Dylan Bundy of the Baltimore Orioles, James Paxton of the Seattle Mariners, Sean Manaea of the Oakland Athletics, Robert Gsellman of the Mets and Zach Davies of the Milwaukee Brewers.

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