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Corey Ray is reasserting himself

The once vaunted collegiate star is now an afterthought in prospect experts’ minds. Should he be?

Most Valuable Prospects v Chicago White Sox Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images

Corey Ray is currently considered the #2 prospect in the Brewers’ system according to most prospect ranking sources that don’t include Corbin Burnes as still prospect eligible. Yet his performance as a professional has been volatile to say the least. The once highly-touted prospect is off to a nice spring, illustrated by a monstrous home run shown below. One swing should not be considered a reason to be high on a prospect, of course, but at the same time, this swing demonstrates excellent bat speed, ability to barrel, outstanding explosion through the hips, and dynamic in-game power.

Coming out of the University of Louisville, Ray was considered the best collegiate positional player available. The Brewers’ first-round pick received all the scouting accolades that come with being such a high draft pick in possession of all five tools. But after an aggressive first year assignment to high-A Brevard County in 2016, where he slashed a disappointing .247/.307/.385, he tore the meniscus in his left knee at the beginning of instructional league.

Ray was still considered a top-tier prospect entering 2017, but the results that year were not those of a top-tier prospect. He had what amounted to just a miserable season coming off of the knee injury. In 112 games with new high-A affiliate Carolina that year, he slashed .238/.311/.367 with 7 home runs and 24 stolen bases. In 503 plate appearances, he struck out an abysmal 156 times. MLB Pipeline scouts indicated that Ray’s power-speed combo is among the best in the Minors, but it failed to show in his first full season because he struggled to control the strike zone. Far too often, Ray was susceptible to chasing pitches well out of the zone with a lengthy swing.

Ray still had trouble controlling the strike zone in 2018, a season where he recorded 176 strike outs in 600 plate appearances. The difference between 2018 and 2017 was the amount of effective contact being made. Ray hit 27 home runs and 66 total extra base hits while stealing 37 bases. He slashed a respectable 239/.323/.477, but with just 122 hits. He did have 60 walks.

Even with the better 2018, scouts are skeptical of Ray. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel of Fangraphs articulated apprehension with the 24 year old prospect giving him the same grade they did in 2017. They cite adjustments made that remedied timing issues that plagued him in 2017. They suggest that in 2018 he was able to clear his front hip earlier, enabling him to catch some of the inside pitches that were tying him up in 2017. When you look at the Spring Training home run mentioned earlier in the article, that is exactly what Ray did. He cleared his hips earlier (he also brought his hands in and barreled the pitch with lightening quickness) and caught the inside pitch.

Longenhagen and McDaniel were also concerned with his strike out 29.3% strikeout rate. What is more concerning is a 17.5 swinging-strike percentage, meaning he swings through pitches in the zone way too much. The two scouts wrote, “his offensive profile feels unstable.” They go on to compare Ray to Chris Taylor (not all that bad, but they think that would be his peak), Franchy Cordero, Brad Zimmer, and Colby Rasmus.

There are some interesting reasons to think about when considering Ray’s path from vaunted prospect compared to prime Andrew McCutchen to disappointing prospect compared to late-career Colby Rasmus. Again he injured his knee during instructionals leading to an awful season in Carolina and a very poor showing in the Arizona Fall League (AFL) in 2017. In fact, Ray’s reputation really took a hit amongst scouts after the AFL. The AFL is a place that scouts come to see prospects on the verge of coming to the Majors. His showing left something to be desired among them as a group. Could that showing be affecting how those scouts think about Ray coming out of 2018 and into 2019?

To illustrate how much Ray was struggling as a hitter in the AFL in 2017, take a look at him in this video during the 2017 AFL season.

What do you notice? He is lifting his back foot. It might be presumed he is doing this as a timing mechanism. He seems to be reversing the idea of the toe tap. Is the intention to force muscle memory to load onto the back leg? Once he starts his load, he has a slight leg kick. In my mind, this is too much for a hitter that struggles to make contact in the zone. It is almost like a ballroom dancer learning dance steps. 1 - back foot up, 2 - load onto back knee, 3 - small leg kick, and repeat.

I cannot know this for sure, but he also may be compensating for the injured knee. He admits the knee affected his on-the-field performance in 2017. His timing was off and he was not getting good swings on the ball. He admitted to getting into bad habits. It shows in the video above as his swing is often too long, he is often off balance, he seems uncomfortable, and he gets the barrel on virtually nothing.

Ray needs a smoother approach with less activity throughout loading to hitting process. He made improvements from that standpoint in 2018 that I wonder whether some of the scouts making scouting reports actually acknowledged or even viewed with their eyes. They have a lot of prospects to get eyes on. Why think about a disappointment of a player when putting your reports together? It is easier to take into account previous assessments and focus on the top prospects, under-the-radar types, and the next group coming up. If he comes back around significantly, then take another hard look at him.

Obviously we are looking at highlights, but what is more important is the mechanics. Think about the mechanics of the AZL video vs. the two videos from 2018. His bat seems to stay in the zone for a long time. There is no wasted movement in his load. There is a small toe tap/kick for timing purposes. And he explodes through his hips generating exceptional hard contact that is reinforced by his quick bat.

One of the knocks on Ray is that he is too pull-oriented, which makes him susceptible to pitches on the outer portion of the plate. Thus he will roll over a lot generating soft contact on the ground. He probably is doing a lot of rolling over, but so do a lot of major league hitters. The video shows outstanding opposite field power. Maybe he just needs to tap into it more by forcing an up-the-middle approach.

Corey Ray took a long slide down the prospect lists in 2017. He is 24 years old, so in many scouts’ minds, he is getting close to old for a prospect. His return to top-100 prospect status might be problematic as a result. The likelihood is that he will play most of the season in San Antonio and not get much of a taste in the Majors in 2019. If he puts up similar numbers to those he put up in 2018, he probably deserves top-100 acknowledgement. If he can reduce the amount of swing and miss in the zone and continue to put up the same hard contact, he will return to an elite level prospect. That would make the future very bright for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference