Robbie Ray, In Pieces

Probably the worst move of the offseason was when the Tigers shipped Doug Fister to the Nationals for a package highlighted by prospect Robbie Ray. It was at least the move most commonly referred to as the worst move of the offseason, and on his own list of the worst transactions, Dave Cameron put it at No. 1. I don’t need to go into all the explanations, but because of all the conversations we’ve had, Ray and Fister might be forever linked. Ray is certainly a pretty well-known prospect, now. And just as everyone expected when the trade was announced, Ray has ended up pitching in the majors in 2014 sooner than Fister has, after making his big-league debut Tuesday night.

There’s only so much you can make of a start, particularly when it’s a first start. You have to account for all the jitters. You have to think a pitcher might not have his normal approach. Ray happened to start against the Astros, which makes for another variable, and then, above everything else, you have the sample size of a handful of innings. Ray survived, which means his start was a success, and he allowed just one run, which means he can feel really good today. Big-time analysis, we can’t perform. But for some analysis, we are already in the clear.

The only thing you can really do with so little information is examine the pitches thrown. You all but have to throw the results out, but the pitches themselves were all on Ray and what a pitch behaves like is the kind of thing that stabilizes almost instantly. Robbie Ray will only throw Robbie Ray fastballs. He’ll only throw Robbie Ray curveballs and changeups. That was his Tuesday repertoire, and indeed, that’s his ordinary repertoire, where the fastball’s considered his best pitch and the changeup is thought of a lot more highly than the breaking ball.

The quick summary: about half of Ray’s pitches were fastballs, popping mostly in the low-90s. He also threw about twice as many changeups as curveballs, with the change in the mid-80s and the curve in the higher-70s. He showed the ability to scrape the mid-90s with his heat, and his curve was something more like a slurve. That curve has been his big project in the minors, as he’s scrapped plans to work on a slider. As you’d expect, given that Ray’s a southpaw, he threw his change almost exclusively to righties.

Now, ordinarily, .gifs are used to highlight remarkable pitches. In this way, they can sometimes be misleading about a guy’s true talent, because you can make anyone look good if you show only a highlight package. What I thought I’d do is include .gifs of all three of Ray’s pitches, showing a good one and a bad one of each. This still isn’t greatly informative, but at least it doesn’t hide that Ray is a work in progress.

Good fastball


Perfect spot, down and away, in a jam early.

Bad fastball


Truth be told, it wasn’t that bad, as Ray just tried to pick a corner, but with that lead in that situation, you really want to throw a strike in a full count.

Good curveball


PITCHf/x thought this was a cutter, which is something I’ve never seen before. The hitter definitely wasn’t ready for a breaking ball, as Ray’s hadn’t been good up to that point.

Bad curveball


Not the head! We only get one head!

Good changeup


This pitch was actually a ball, but it was a good ball. There is such thing as a good ball.

Bad changeup


Ahead in the count, Ray threw a change more or less middle-middle. He was trying to throw a change much like the example of the good change above. This wasn’t hit for a hit, but it was hit very well.

I thought I’d also try something else, comparing each of Ray’s pitches to pitches thrown by other major leaguers. For all three of his pitches, we’ve got an average velocity, an average horizontal movement, and an average vertical movement. Using z-scores and whatnot, I created some homespun similarity scores to match Ray up with other left-handed starting pitchers in 2014. Let’s start with his four-seam fastball. Which lefty starters in 2014 have thrown the most similar four-seam fastballs, according to PITCHf/x?

Four-seam fastball

  1. Matt Moore
  2. Jon Lester
  3. Matt Harrison

An interesting list, with asterisks. Moore’s a big talent, but his fastball has declined, and so his 2014 fastball wasn’t his fastball of old. Lester is considered by most to be an ace, but as far as hard stuff is concerned, most everyone makes a bigger deal out of his cutter. Harrison’s been a good pitcher before, but his trademark is the grounder-inducing sinker, not his straighter four-seam, which at least PITCHf/x thinks he throws.


  1. J.A. Happ
  2. Jose Quintana
  3. Martin Perez

Happ has trimmed the use of his change. This year it’s been his fifth pitch. Quintana has picked up his changeup rates, and he’s used it against righties in all situations. Perez’s change is a legitimate weapon. For him, that pitch is responsible for more strikeouts than any other.


  1. Robbie Ross
  2. Matt Harrison
  3. Martin Perez

Here, oddly, we get a trio of Rangers, including two we’ve seen before. Perez will try to sneak the curve in against righties for a first-pitch strike. Harrison hasn’t thrown the curve much yet, but in the past he used it very similarly against both righties and lefties. Ross’ curve this year has mostly gone for balls. Which makes some sense, since it isn’t a pitch he featured as a reliever.

As with everything, you can take this only so far. All these pitches might behave similarly, but every pitcher has a unique delivery and the ball can be easier or more difficult to read out of the hand. Ray, in the past, has been noted to be pretty deceptive and hard to pick up. There’s also the matter of pitch consistency — when you’re looking at averages, you’re missing spreads, and, for example, we know that Ray’s curve is in the process of being developed so just grouping them all together can miss the mark. But one thing you can say is that Ray throws a similar repertoire as Harrison and Perez, except that Harrison has that sinker and Perez has one too.

So Ray will probably end up generating fewer groundballs. But to offset that, he’ll probably end up generating more missed swings, since the four-seam fastball works up and tries harder to avoid contact. Alternatively, Ray might start throwing a sinker, or anything else. The important thing to remember is that Robbie Ray is still a prospect.

We didn’t learn a ton about his future on Tuesday. What we learned was that he made his big-league debut, and it was a successful one. He’ll spend much of the rest of the season in Triple-A, still trying to smooth out his secondary stuff. Ray looks like a major-league starter. He has the components of a major-league starter. At issue is how good of a major-league starter. A lot of that is going to come down to how his curveball progresses. Already, he’s a back-of-the-rotation type. The Tigers believe he can be more than that. The Tigers, as they themselves have demonstrated, might believe in Robbie Ray even more than Robbie Ray himself.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

34 Responses to “Robbie Ray, In Pieces”

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  1. TM says:

    He looked pretty damn good all things considered. If he can be a ~3.80 xFIP guy over the course of his team control years then I think the trade was quite fair for both sides.

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    • Paul says:

      If Fister can produce a 2.00 xFIP guy this year over 180 IP, then I would also think the trade wasn’t fair.

      However, this situation is unlikely just like your conditional situation. Nobody expects him to be a 3 WAR pitcher right away, and certainly nobody expects him to average 3 WAR over his five years. Ray was not a top-100 prospects by most accounts, and most consider his ceiling to be a mid-rotation starter which is around 3 WAR.

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    • peopletocakeratio says:

      i’m not going to try to argue whether the results of the trade may end up being roughly equivalent. to me, it’s not really an issue of the trade being fair in hindsight; it’s a matter of the trade being lopsided at the time.

      yes, from the tigers’ perspective, part of the logic behind the trade may have been to clear some future payroll and to obtain a starting pitcher they would have under control for longer than fister. there is value in that endeavor and that seems to have been accomplished. however, it seems that unless the actual market value for fister was lower than any of us expected and/or both the nationals and the tigers had higher opinions of the players sent to detroit than the rest of the league, no one believed the tigers got *market value* for trading two years of arbitration-eligible doug fister.

      it’s certainly possible that the tigers had “better” trade offers from teams, returning prospects/players the tigers didn’t project/value as highly as those they got from washington. obviously contract status, position and ability also matter. and there may have been other considerations, of which we’re not aware, that shine some light on the return the tigers were able to get for fister (e.g. health, personal issues, contract demands).

      on a semi-related note, i wondered why the trade talk this winter centered on scherzer and porcello; scherzer’s market value had never been higher and while the same may have been true for porcello after 2013, he was still a pitcher with a worse-than-average ERA the four prior seasons. (i’m not saying ERA is what anyone should solely use to determine the quality of a pitcher; just that it evaluates actual results rather than a metric which may better estimate a pitcher’s ability, independent of the team he plays for.) fister had proven himself a top pitcher in the league and was relatively cost-controlled for two years. to me, it made a lot of sense that he’d be the one to be traded.

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      • asdfsdafa says:

        I keep hearing that the trade is going to be terrible no matter what because Dombrowski could have had more. But that’s just a guess. Unless you are familiar with the inner workings of the Tigers FO, you have no idea if there were better returns out there.

        On top of that, Mike Rizzo initially rejected that trade. It was so lopsided that Rizzo turned it down? How does that even make sense?

        “You can see that young pitching right now is very difficult to acquire,” Dombrowski said. “We had a list of about 15 pitchers that we would consider in various deals. He was one of the 15. The other 14 people said no. And (the Nationals) said no at first.”

        Nationals GM Mike Rizzo confirmed Dombrowski’s account, saying, “Robbie Ray is a guy we were reluctant to move at the beginning. It’s why the trade took 2½ weeks to consummate.”

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        • bobabaloo says:

          That may be true. But dombrowski was pretty impatient then. That trade happened early in the offseason. And it’s not like he absolutely had to get a deal done. If everyone said no, he should have just kept fister, or at least waited a bit.

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        • peopletocakeratio says:

          hi, yeah. “Unless you are familiar with the inner workings of the Tigers FO, you have no idea if there were better returns out there.”

          i said: “it’s certainly possible that the tigers had “better” trade offers from teams, returning prospects/players the tigers didn’t project/value as highly as those they got from washington. obviously contract status, position and ability also matter. and there may have been other considerations, of which we’re not aware, that shine some light on the return the tigers were able to get for fister (e.g. health, personal issues, contract demands).” i have no idea if the market values of the other 14 trades dombrowski pursued would have been considered as lopsided as the trade that was actually consummated.

          i also said: “however, it seems that unless the actual market value for fister was lower than any of us expected and/or both the nationals and the tigers had higher opinions of the players sent to detroit than the rest of the league, no one believed the tigers got *market value* for trading two years of arbitration-eligible doug fister.” so, it appears that both the nationals and tigers had higher opinions of the players sent to detroit than the rest of the league. or at least higher than the MLB journalists and folks who follow prospects.

          so pretty much, i’m aware i don’t know the inner workings of the tigers’ (or other teams’) front office, so i didn’t specifically claim that dombrowski did or did not do anything in trading doug fister. it was all based on the general reaction to the tigers being ripped off in the trade (i.e. fister’s market value was higher than what he was traded for) compared to what the internal valuations of the players by the tigers and nationals.

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  2. Matt Provenzano says:

    That title implies that this could also make an amazing NotGraphs article.

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  3. Thomas Au says:

    It might not just be that the Tigers believe in Robbie Ray. It’s that they (and the Mariners DISbelieved in Doug Fister.

    The Tigers traded Francisco Martinez, Casper Wells, and Chance Ruffin to the Mariners FOR Fister. They then traded Fister to the Nats for Ray, Steve Lombardo, and Ian Krol.

    Ray, Lombardo and Krol, not necessarily a bad return for Martinez, Wells, and Ruffin. It’s just that they used Fister as “currency.”

    It may be that last year’s Fister was exceptional, and that Ray, Lombardo and Krol are a fair return for an injury-hobbled Fister going forward. But if that’s the case, the Tigers could have kept the secret to themselves, and gotten a better return for Fister.

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    • emdash says:

      Injury-hobbled is perhaps premature, no? He’s missed a month, but he’s set to debut Friday and may come back just as strong.

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    • LHPSU says:

      Really, the thing about the trade isn’t so much that the return was necessarily bad – I’m quite willing to give that the Tigers have a better report on Robbie Ray than anybody else. It’s just that, given market valuation, Detroit should have been able to get what they got from Washington, PLUS at least one more decent, even organization top-10 prospect.

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    • RP says:

      Not really following the “the Tigers traded for a pitcher that they didn’t really think was good with hopes of using him as a trade piece in the future” narrative. Why hold him for two years then?

      Considering how the trio sent to Seattle worked out, in the big picture, I guess anything the Tigers continue to get from this trade chain is gravy.

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    • Paul says:

      Thank you for showing what the Tigers might have been thinking. It doesn’t make it any less stupid, though.

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  4. Elmo says:

    Hopefully he doesn’t have to face the same hate Porcello got in Detroit during his growing pains.

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    • TM says:

      The hate Porcello got, and still gets even now is downright absurd. Guy is 25 years old. Tons of people seem to forget that, and now he’s a good #3 on most any team and seems to still be improving.

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    • RP says:

      “Hate” is quite excessive. Twitter is not the real world.

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    • Angelo says:

      Funny you should mention that since Porcello is basically the same pitcher as Fister except younger

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      • The Facts, Not Opinion says:

        WAR over the past 3 years (2011-2013):
        Porcello- 2.6, 3, 3.2
        Fister- 5.2, 3.5, 4.6

        RA9 WAR over the past 3 years (2011-2013):
        Porcello- 1.1, 1, 2.2
        Fister- 5.7, 2.9, 3.7

        They are not even close to being the same pitcher.

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        • Colin says:

          They were nearly identical last year in terms of peripherals

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        • Kevin Stovall says:

          I made reference to this below, but in Porcello’s 3 worst starts he gave up 30.5%of his earned runs in 5.6% of his innings. I am not going to try and calculate is WAR in those 3 starts, but it is fair to say they were highly negative. That would then indicate that his WAR in his other 26 starts was certainly very close to Fister for the entire season.

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    • The Party Bird says:

      I don’t think Ray will have as much “growing pains”. Porcello was drafted as a power pitcher and inexplicably turned into a sinkerballer by the Tigers organization. A year later, he was thrown to the wolves in the big leagues. He got competent infield defense in his rookie year (his best full season by RA; incidentally also his worst in DIPS metrics by far) and then the Tigers began de-emphasizing infield defense.

      As Porcello made strides as a pitcher (his FIP and xFIP have improved every season of his career), the infield defense got worse, masking the great progress he has made.

      Ray, on the other hand, didn’t have his pitching style/philosophy drastically altered by the organization and will likely pitch his first seasons in a much better era of Tiger defense.

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  5. Johnston says:

    I am anything but a Tigers fan, but that trade made me want to scream and throw things.

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  6. Kevin Stovall says:

    First thank you so much for this. Your limited comp list was quite interesting. I have been working on a college and Euro to NBA comp analysis for several years, and I find the comp analysis quite interesting, and it is extremely revealing about players.

    As far as Porcello and Fister. Obviously Porcello last season was not on the same level as Fister. Fister was really solid.

    One thing with Porcello is he had an exceptional rookie season as a 20 year old. He regressed substantially in his 2nd year but has improved every year since. It has been referenced that his peripherals were better than his standard stat line, but I think it is also very important to look at his game log last year. He had 3 exceptionally bad starts last year out of 30 starts. One was in Anaheim where he gave up 9 earned runs in 2/3’s of an inning, and a June start against the Angels where he gave up 7 earned in 4-1/3, and a start against the Red Sox in Sept where he gave up 8 earned in 5 innings. So for 27 of his 30 starts he was effectively as good as Verlander or Fister, but he had 3 games where his sinker didn’t sink, his slider didn’t slide, and his fastball wasn’t fast. It is only my opinion, but I think Porcello has a better future than Fister, and I think (my opinion only) he will have a decidedly better next 5-6 years than Fister.

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  7. jdbolick says:

    Just because Ray wasn’t a top 100 prospect doesn’t condemn him to irrelevance.

    It isn’t fair to penalize Robbie Ray for what the Tigers traded to get him. A left-handed pitching prospect with a quality fastball has value, and it wouldn’t be hugely inaccurate to describe Ray as a lesser Tony Cingrani. His changeup is solid, but Robbie will need a breaking pitch and improved command to be an effective starting pitcher.

    It would also be nice if we could stop assuming that the Tigers could have had much better offers for Fister. It’s fine to say that the Tigers should have had better offers, but that doesn’t make theoretical proposals into real ones.

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  8. Matt says:

    I think given Dombrowski’s track record in trades that he should deserve the benefit of the doubt. The people saying that he could’ve gotten better value for Fister are probably way off base, he may have gotten better value perceived by the masses(ie maybe a higher “rated” prospect than Ray) but that would be about it. Dombrowski has one of the best track record in terms of trades in the modern ERA. He rarely loses than, especially if you base it just on talent alone. He has a keen eye for talent. The people that think that a GM as good as him just gave him up on the cheap to Washington are clueless. He is way smarter than that, the fact that Dombrowski would “dump” somebody off on me would scare me as an opposing GM. When was the last time he got rid of a premium talent? Maybe Granderson? But even that resulted in Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer. The guy knows what he’s doing.

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    • Matt says:

      Sorry for all the grammar mistakes, I’m typing fast from my phone.

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    • The majority of GM misjudge the value of players all the time.

      20+ teams passed on Trout.

      There were 5 full round of the NFL draft before Brady, who was the starting QB for winningest college football team in history (not some diamond in the rough) and just beat Alabama in the Orange Bowl, was picked.

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  9. 1. Great job. Very interesting analysis!

    2. Comparing Ray to FIster is unfair to both players. Better to compare Fister to Porcello. In effect, the TIgers traded the rights to Fister for $40-50MM. That is their projected cost savings (v. free agents) until Ray and Krol become free agents. Given salaries today, that savings is for a #4 pitcher, Ray does not really need to be any better than that for the Tigers to get benefit.

    3. Simply put, if the trade were simply the rights to FIster for $40MM, would this trade be the “worst of the offseason”? If not, then is it because you think Ray is not good enough to be a #4 and Krol cannot be a left handed reliever for many years?

    4. Key question: Can Porcello outpitch Fister in the next 2 years? If the answer is yes, the deal looks even better for the Tigers.

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  10. Dave Cornutt says:

    I watched that game. Much was made by the Astros’ annoucers of the fact that Ray wasn’t throwing quite as hard as he has been known to in the minors. However, I though he had very good horizontal command and used both corners well. He did get away with a few pitches left up, but on the other hand, there were a lot of Astrohits (bloopers and infield slow rollers) hit off of good pitches. (By both teams — it was a strange game in that regard.) For the most part, when he misses high, it’s well out of the strike zone. As opposed to his opposite number in the game, Brett Olberholtzer, who left a lot of pitches in the top third of the strike zone, and paid for some of them.

    I got the general impression that Ray is learning how to be a pitcher vs. a thrower, and doing so at a younger age than a lot of his contemporaries. Labeling him an ace in the making might be a bit of a stretch, but not a lot. I can see him becoming a #2 starter with some innings under his belt.

    Incidentally, I only recall seeing three or four curves, although Pitch/FX seems to show that he threw about 12. I do recall him striking out Jose Altuve on a knee-bender.

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