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D-backs’ Robbie Ray picking up the pace, and it’s part of his recent success

Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher Robbie Ray delivers in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Ray pitched a complete game, four-hit, 3-0 shutout. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pitchers aren’t helping much as Major League Baseball searches for ways to speed up games.

Take, for example, Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke, whose pace of 25.7 seconds between pitches ranks eighth-longest for starting pitchers in MLB this year. It’s a tenth of a second longer than the highest average of a year ago.

While plodding paces may work for some pitchers — the Rays’ staff is infamous for taking it slow this year — it hasn’t worked for Greinke’s teammate, Robbie Ray.

After throwing his first complete-game shutout Tuesday in a 3-0 win over the Pirates, Ray appears to have found improvement throwing at a quicker pace.

At least, it’s part of the much-improved left-hander’s game this season.

“Coming off the two starts previous, it’s really feeling like I’m getting in the groove with all my pitches,” Ray said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. “The biggest thing for me is picking up the pace a little bit. Get the ball back, get on the rubber, get the sign and go.”

Ray hasn’t allowed a run in the past 24.2 innings pitched that span more than three games.

So far this year, his pace has been one of a few notable changes from a year ago.

After ranking 26th-slowest by taking 22.9 seconds between pitches in 2016, Ray is now ranked 77th by taking 21.6 seconds between pitches (here’s how FanGraphs calculates the statistic).

Just more than a second doesn’t seem like much, but it says something that he’s gone from the second-slowest D-back starter in pace to the fastest.

Catcher Chris Herrmann told reporters after the win over the Pirates that he noticed a difference in Ray’s pitching rhythm on Tuesday.

“His pace was a lot quicker than normal, which I know he’s really been working on that all season long,” the catcher said. “He just seems to be getting quicker, quicker, quicker. I feel like it keeps hitters off balance a little bit, just unprepared for the at-bat, if that makes sense.”

What else has changed for Ray?

By implementing curveballs on 20 percent of his pitches compared to just 5 percent a year ago, he’s added a confusing third pitch to go with a his slider and fastball, the latter of which he’s used less this year.

Eno Sarris of FanGraphs wondered if that curveball was what Ray needed to succeed, though he also wondered a month into the season if it was all that different from the slider.

To that end, the curveball registers more than 3 mph slower (81.5 mph) than Ray’s slider — Ray told AZCentral’s Nick Piecoro this week about the work he put in to differentiate the two pitches.

Like a year ago, Ray is striking out batters at a top-five rate in MLB. He’s still walking batters at a relatively high rate but has made some strides by leaving more runners on base — 69 percent in 2016 to 78 percent this year.

Additionally, Ray has improved on his opponents’ already weak out-of-zone contact percentage that dropped from 58 percent last year to MLB’s third-lowest mark at 49 percent in 2017.

Put more simply, batters have been more confused with his pitch mix, and the pace just might be allowing them less time to think at the plate.

Opponents are hitting .198 against Ray this year compared to .265 in 2016.

More drastically, batters have not gotten as clean of contact. They’ve only batted .265 of balls in play (BABIP) during 2017 compared to .352 last year.

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