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Robbie Ray syncing up with rotation is key to Diamondbacks’ pennant push

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Eight games.

Of the 28 games left-handed pitcher Robbie Ray started for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017, the D-backs only lost eight of those games.

Through 15 starts in 2018, the D-backs have fallen nine times already on Ray days.

Ray’s struggles this season have been one of the difference-makers in the D-backs not having more control in the race for a National League West title and the team overall looking like a contender.

The lefty was the D-backs’ best pitcher last season and had a 2.89 ERA that has jumped nearly two whole points to a 4.83 ERA in 2018.

It would be foolish of course, to not mention an oblique injury that cost him two months of the season.

Ray, though, has had nine outings since returning and there are two specific areas where a clear change in performance can be seen.

He’s not escaping danger as often and walking more hitters while doing so.

Last season, Ray left 84.5 percent of his runners on-base, showing an innate ability to get out of jams. That was the second-best number in baseball to Clayton Kershaw’s 87.4 percent. Through mid-August this year, Ray sits at 74.9 percent, which would rank 32nd in the majors if Ray qualified for the statistical leaderboards. Good, but not one of the best.

Ray is also walking 4.6 hitters per nine innings, a career-high number and a dramatic uptick from a 3.67 number posted two years ago. That continues his rise to 3.94 walks per nine innings last season.

The trouble is, the aforementioned drop in escapability is being worsened by the walks, and hitters are making better contact off Ray compared to a year prior.

One of Ray’s statistical anomalies in 2017 was the contact hitters got off him. After opposing batters hit .311 and .352 on balls in play (BABIP) for 2015 and 2016, that number dropped all the way to .267 this past season. For 2018, the regression to the mean occurred and his BABIP is .331.

Twenty-four percent of balls hit off Ray in play are line drives, also a career-high number and up from 19.5 percent last season.

So where do luck and chance factor into those two numbers?

Well, fielding independent pitching (FIP) gives us an indicator. The statistic is designed to balance out those two factors by taking balls in play out of the equation. Ray’s FIP the past three seasons was 3.53, 3.76 and 3.72. Those are considered above average numbers. Once again, we see a drop for this season, a 4.41 FIP, a below average number.

Often times, there are several differentiating factors that can be attributed to a starting pitcher’s change in level of play. That’s still true for Ray, but to translate, Ray was an average-to-above-average pitcher according to FIP the past three seasons and has now seen a legitimate decline.

Most importantly, the “winnable” outings from Ray just aren’t coming enough.

He’s had a quality start in 26.7 percent of his outings. That is a drop-off of over 30 percent from last year’s percentage of 57.1.

Luckily for the D-backs, the rest of the staff has been taking care of them enough.

Of the pitchers with at least 20 outings, Zack Greinke’s quality start percentage is 62.5 percent, Patrick Corbin has a 54.2 percent number and it’s a solid 50 percent for Zack Godley. That’s not to mention Clay Buchholz, who has a 2.67 ERA in 11 starts at the end of the rotation.

Because of that, Arizona is more than capable of making the playoffs without a resurgence from Ray.

However, it sure would help, especially in the playoffs.

If Greinke and Corbin maintain their high quality of pitching, Ray becoming reliable enough as a third option over his last seven-to-eight starts could prove to be the difference in a playoff exit or a push for the pennant.

That’s not even asking for Ray to recapture his form from last season, but with an inconsistent offense, it may be what Arizona needs if they are playing in October.

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

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