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.
Perfect spot, down and away, in a jam early.
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.
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.
Not the head! We only get one head!
This pitch was actually a ball, but it was a good ball. There is such thing as a good ball.
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?
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.
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.
- Robbie Ross
- Matt Harrison
- 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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