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Milwaukee Brewers trade target: Robbie Ray

A potential ace or a pipe dream?

MLB: San Diego Padres at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Brewers have been quite busy this offseason. They've lost players like Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, Eric Thames, Travis Shaw, Jimmy Nelson, and many more. They have in turn acquired a plethora of players like Luis Urias, Avisail Garcia, Omar Narvaez, Justin Smoak, and Jedd Gyorko (among others) to fill the multitude of empty roster spots. With all of the transactions completed to date, projection systems indicate a solid season from the Brew Crew.

Depth seems to be the emphasis point for David Stearns as he constructs the Brewers’ roster. The starting rotation is no exception. The acquisitions of Josh Lindblom, Eric Lauer, and Brett Anderson add to definitive rotation pieces Brandon Woodruff and Adrian Houser. Others that are in the running to pitch at some point in the rotation this season include Freddy Peralta, Corbin Burnes, and Brent Suter, Yet even with all of this depth, another good starting pitcher could make a big difference. Might Robbie Ray be the starting pitcher to target?

Back in November, the Diamondbacks reportedly were open to trading Ray. If that is the case, should Milwaukee explore the left-handed flame thrower?

Ray will be just 28 years old in 2020, and he will be motivated to pitch well as he enters his walk year. When Ray is good, he has shown the ability of a front-of-the-rotation arm. In 2017 he pitched to a 2.89 ERA over 162 innings. 84.5% of runners that got on base against him were left on base in that year. The hard hit percentage and exit velocity against him in that season were in the 2nd and 3rd-best percentiles respectively. He was one of the better pitchers in baseball in 2017, and he might be able to get back to that level with the right team.

He is also a strikeout machine. Over the past four seasons, Ray has struck out 30.8% of batters he has faced. Among starting pitchers, only Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Chris Sale have been better in this category during that time span.

With just one year remaining before Ray reaches free agency, his trade value is likely reduced. The Brewers’ farm system is ranked at or near the bottom by most prospect ranking publications, this might offer a way to get a pitcher with top-end potential at a decent trade price.

On the flip side, Robbie Ray’s Achilles heel is the base on balls. In 2018 he walked more than 5 per 9, and he walked 4.34 per 9 in 2019. When he reduced that walk rate, he was ace level. In 2017 he was able to keep his walk rate below 4 per 9. The result was a strong season.

He also has a problem with giving up home runs. Luckily for him, he generally gives up solo shots. At least that was the case in 2019 where 22 of the 30 home runs he gave up were with no one on base. Over the past two seasons his home runs per nine were 1.38 in 2018 and 1.55 in 2019. 1.4 home runs per 9 was the average across baseball in 2019 and it was 1.2 home runs per nine in 2018. Essentially he is below average in this category, and that is especially problematic when you think of him coming to Miller Park.

Additionally, Ray is not likely to eat up a lot of innings. The most innings he has ever thrown in a season is 174.1 in 2016 and 2019. In the seasons he pitched the most innings of his career, he still ranked just 60th and 46th respectively among MLB starting pitchers. When you both strikeout and walk a lot of batters, struggling to work deep into games is often the result.

Right-handed hitters were relatively successful against Ray in 2019, which has not always been the case. When hitters held the platoon advantage against Robbie, they slugged .462 against him with a .337 wOBA. Compare that to 2017 when he allowed a slug of just .354 and a wOBA of .285.

Perhaps that is related to the fact that the quality of Robbie Ray’s pitches have been on the decline over the past few seasons. First of all it seems that his fastball is losing velocity. In 2016 his average fastball velocity was 95.3. That average fastball velocity sat at 92.7 in 2019. He is still striking out a lot of hitters (more than 12 per 9), but he is compensating for 1.4 mph decrease in fastball velocity between 2018 and 2019 with a slider. In 2019 Ray used his fastball 10% less than he did in 2018. He used his slider 32% of the time. That was an increase of 6.2% from 2018 and a whopping 12.6% increase from his best season in 2017.

Oddly his wSL rated a -5.5 in 2019. In the previous two seasons, his slider rated out positively. It is quite possible that the increased usage affected the quality of the pitch. It might be that the dip in fastball velocity impacted the quality of the slider as well. It might also be the case that his slider was not as effective because of the issues with the dragless ball. That certainly seems to have been the case with other pitchers in 2019 that have had success with the slider in previous seasons (Jhoulys Chacin, Miles Mikolas, and Mike Foltynewicz come to mind). Nonetheless the slider was not as effective a pitch for Robbie Ray than it had been in previous seasons.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have been dreaming on the left arm of Robbie Ray for several years. The thought has been that he can become an ace. Left-handed pitchers with his stuff are not plentiful. Yet should the Brewers take on the dream of what Robbie Ray could be? If you look at the stats, he seems like a pitcher on a potential decline at the age of 28. On the other hand, he could simply be that player that needs the proverbial “change of scenery.” Might a transplant into Milwaukee’s pitching system be what the doctor ordered for Mr. Ray? Could a resurgent Robbie Ray be just what the doctor order for Milwaukee in the march towards a third straight post season? In any case, Robbie Ray is intriguing target.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Savant