Robbie Ray, who won the 2021 American League Cy Young Award, is a free agent. What is the potential value of a new Ray contract? Should Toronto re-sign him or say sayonara?
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On August 31, 2020, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired a struggling Robbie Ray from the Arizona Diamondbacks. With the 2020 Diamondbacks, he posted a 7.84 ERA, 7.29 FIP and a 9.00 BB/9. Ray was a little better with the Jays: he recorded a 4.79 ERA, 5.32 FIP and 6.10 BB/9. According to many reports, Ray was very interested in working with Pete Walker and signed a USD 8 million deal early into the off-season.
The work with Walker paid off! 2021 Ray produced a 2.84 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 2.42 BB/9 and a 3.9 fWAR. Ray was fully deserving of his Cy Young. FanGraphs rated Ray #7 on their Top 50 free agents; the only starter ahead of Ray is Max Scherzer (#4).
The structure of the analysis is as follows:
- A review of various pitching metrics
- An estimate of what a reasonable contract would be for Ray
- The arguments for and against signing Ray
Ray’s outstanding 2021 campaign and awful 2020 can cause one to overlook that Ray has had good seasons before 2020. Table 1 illustrates that Ray’s 2017 was similar to 2021 in K%, K%-BB%, ERA, xERA and fWAR percentile rankings. His 2019 and 2016 seasons were middling from an xERA perspective; 2016’s fWAR was 86th percentile, better than 2019’s 64th fWAR percentile.
However, it is Ray’s 2021 that earned him the Cy Young and put him in a position to secure a lucrative contract in free agency. Let’s dig a little deeper into Ray’s record.
Strikeouts and Bases on Balls
- Ray is a strikeout machine. In five of his last six seasons, his K% was no lower than the 94th percentile.
- Bases on balls have been an issue for Ray throughout most of his career.
- Before this season, Ray’s best relative BB% ranking was 2016’s 27th percentile mark. For the 2018-2020 period, Ray’s best ranking was 2nd. In other words, 98 percent of the starters had lower BB% than Ray.
- For the 2021 campaign as a whole, Ray’s BB% percentile ranking was 63rd. However, a cautionary note is that his BB% was 80th percentile during the April-June period and 51st in the July-October time segment. If Ray can maintain his relative BB% standing near the median, his K%-BB% should remain in the Top 10 percent of starters.
Table 2 shows that in 2021 Ray was essentially a two-pitch pitcher: 90.2% of his pitches were 4-seam fastballs (59.4%) and sliders (30.8%). During the 2017-2020 period, Ray’s 4-seam fastball and slider usage averaged 77%. Most starting pitchers have a more balanced arsenal than Ray. However, some of the top starters in 2021 had similar dependency upon two pitches.
- Carlos Rodon: 4-seam fastball (58.6%) and slider (27.2%)
- Trevor Rogers: 4-seam fastball (57.7%) and changeup (27.4%)
- Kevin Gausman: 4-seam fastball (52.7%) and split-finger (35.3%)
In a perfect world, a repertoire with more effective pitches than fewer is preferred. Why? On days when one of their high-usage pitches is not working, a starting pitcher with a more balanced arsenal is more likely to succeed than a two-pitch starter. (All other things being equal).
However, Ray’s highly-concentrated pitch usage was excellent in 2021. Due to a combination of velocity, spin rate, location and sequencing, Ray’s 2021 Statcast Run Value (-22) for his 4-seam fastball was second-best. (Of the 137 starters and relievers who threw the 4-seamer to a minimum of 150 batters). Concerning his slider, Ray’s 2021 Run Value was (-11) tied for 16th best of 113 pitchers who threw the slider to a minimum of 100 batters.
Because the 4-seam fastball and slider so heavily skew Ray’s pitch mix, his Run-Value excellence with those pitches is not surprising. A good measure of relative Run-Value performance is to look at all pitches thrown (to a minimum of 100 batters) by all pitchers and sum the Run Value by pitch. On this basis, Ray was the eighth-best in total Run Value (-33); Rodon was the leader at -40. I would say that the two-pitch repertoire worked well for Ray in 2021.
Readers should note that the Run-Value stat is descriptive, not predictive. In other words, it can be reliably used to determine what has happened but not what will happen.
In my opinion, baseball observers should acknowledge the performance risk associated with Ray’s two-pitch arsenal approach but not give undue weight.
Three Times Through The Order
Carmen Ciardiello recently wrote the Evaluating Two-Pitch Pitchers article. One of Ciardiello’s findings was that there is a downside to reliance upon two pitches. Namely, a wOBA penalty for two-pitch pitchers when they encounter a batter for the third time in a game. Ciardiello estimated that the three-times-through-the order (“TTO”) penalty is “almost twice that of starting pitchers with more diverse arsenals.”
Table 3 illustrates the TTO results for the 2021 Blue Jays starters. Ray’s wOBA percentile ranking among MLB starters (minimum of 80 plate appearances in the TTO situation) was the 6th percentile. When Ray faced batters for the first time in a game, his wOBA percentile ranking was 75th; it was 94th when batters were up for their second plate appearance.
Although Ray’s TTO performance is an issue, one should not fall into the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees trap. Despite Ray’s TTO record, he generated excellent percentile marks in ERA (92nd), xERA (80th), fWAR (88th), innings pitched (98th) and the average length of an outing (95th). He made many starts, performed well in those starts and the length of his outings was excellent.
It is important to note that a reasonable contract value falls within a range of other valid contract values. There is no precise number for a contract estimate; it is not like going to the grocery store to buy broccoli.
Table 4 presents the calculation of a contract for Ray. The highlights are as follows:
- There is some divergence between my estimated contract value and those of others.
- My 5-year, USD 117.2 million is in-line Jon Becker’s Median (5-year, USD 122.5 million).
- When I guesstimate a 4-year deal for Ray, the total value is USD 97.2 million, which is higher than the Crowdsource Median of $72.0.
- FanGraphs’ 4-year, USD 112 million is an outlier. If you assume a 0.3 fWAR age-degradation per season, Ray’s 4-year fWAR total would be 12.6 (FanGraphs started with Steamers 2022 fWAR projection of 3.6). Therefore, USD 112 million with a 12.6 fWAR corresponds with an implied USD 8.9 million/fWAR, which appears very high to me. Mainly because the 2022 USD/fWAR Dan Szymborski used in his Blue Jays Sign José Berríos to Reasonable, Necessary Extension article was USD 7.2 million.
I think a fair comparison for a Ray contract is that of Zack Wheeler. Before the 2020 season, Wheeler signed a five-year, USD 118 million contract. During the six seasons before free agency (2014-2019), Wheeler posted a 3.83 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 11.5 fWAR in 649 innings. Injuries have been an issue for Wheeler. During 2015 and 20016, he recovered from Tommy John surgery. Also, Wheeler missed 96 days during the 2017-2019 period.
In Ray’s six seasons before free agency (2016-2021), he recorded a 3.93 ERA, 4.08 FIP and a 13.3 fWAR in 879 innings. MLB’s decision to implement a 60-game schedule for the 2020 season limited Ray’s 879-innings total.
During his pre-free agency period, Wheeler posted better ERA and FIP marks than Ray, but Ray was more durable. I think five years and USD 118 million for Wheeler was reasonable given his risk of injury. When I decreased Wheeler’s compensation to reflect 2020’s reduced schedule, at USD 8 million per fWAR (the standard rate in 2019), Wheeler needed to generate a 12.9 fWAR to justify his deal. So far, Wheeler has produced a 9.3 fWAR for the Phillies. I think Philadelphia is happy with the Wheeler contract.
In my opinion, a Ray contract that is similar to Wheeler’s would be reasonable. Ray has not been as effective as Wheeler, but he has been more durable, and that is a fair trade-off between performance and availability.
Arguments for and against signing Ray
- When the 2021 regular season concluded, the Blue Jays had one of the best starting rotations in Major League Baseball. During the July 1 to October 3 period, Toronto’s starters recorded the third-lowest ERA in MLB, which was best among American League teams. Also, Blue Jays starters produced MLB’s eighth-lowest xERA after June 30, which was third-best in the American League. Therefore, as a contending team, Toronto should maintain its starting-rotation competitive advantage. According to Steamer’s 2022 projection, Ray’s fWAR of 3.7 would tie for 14th-best in MLB, third-highest among starters currently signed to an American League team.
- In Semien: A Short Stop As A Toronto Blue Jay?, I opined that the Blue Jays should not re-sign Marcus Semien, and I argued that Toronto has other offseason priorities to address. Namely, starting pitching. By re-signing Ray, or a Ray-like starter, Toronto’s actions would be consistent with my Ray-Semien opinion.
- Teams should be more open to spending more dollars per fWAR when they are a playoff-calibre ball club. To that point, Ray’s market price may be high, and his contract would not be without risk. However, a contending team such as Toronto should be willing to pay a reasonable premium (dollars or term) to secure the services of one of MLB’s best starters.
- Ray has been relatively durable. He missed only 108 days with injuries during his career; the longest stint on the Injured List was 59 days with an oblique injury in 2018.
- Toronto does not have much in the way of high-quality pitching prospects in the minor leagues. The number of pitching prospects on Baseball America’s recent Top Ten Prospects List is two: Nate Pearson and Gunnar Hoglund. Pearson has struggled (command and health issues), and Hoglund is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Blue Jays must look outside the organization to sign/acquire high-quality starting pitchers in the short term.
- The 2022 campaign will be Ray’s age-30 season. On average, a pitcher’s performance declines during their age 31 to 37 seasons.
- There are the two-pitch arsenal and TTO issues to consider, which I noted earlier.
- A five-year, USD 100+ million financial commitment is substantial. Particularly given that Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Teoscar Hernandez will likely sign significant contracts in the future that will rapidly escalate the Blue Jays’ payroll. There are limits to a payroll budget.
On balance, I would sign Ray to a four-year contract in the USD 95 million to 105 million range. If needed, I would offer a five-year deal with a total value between USD 115 million to 125 million. It’s only money. What could go wrong?
The last word
The Toronto Blue Jays will enter the 2022 MLB season as a favourite to contend for a playoff spot. One of the strengths of the 2021 Blue Jays was the quality and depth of their starting rotation. Ray, the 2021 American League Cy Young winner, was integral to Toronto’s success. In my opinion, Toronto should re-sign Ray to a contract that could max out at five years and USD 125 million.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.