It's been a disastrous season for the Arizona Diamondbacks, as they have baseball's third-worst record at 59-84. What's remarkable is they have actually had several things go right: Jake Lamb, despite slumping in the second half, has still had a breakout season; Jean Segura has put up a 4-WAR year; Yasmany Tomas has hit 29 home runs. Then there's Robbie Ray, who starts Tuesday night. He's 7-13 with a 4.46 ERA, numbers that scream mediocrity more than greatness, just another cog in the Diamondbacks' losing ways. And yet there's this:
Strikeouts per nine innings:
1. Jose Fernandez, 12.80
2. Ray, 11.30
3. Stephen Strasburg, 11.15
4. Max Scherzer, 11.09
5. Chris Archer, 10.71
6. Noah Syndergaard, 10.51
7. Michael Pineda, 10.30
8. Madison Bumgarner, 10.19
Those are the eight starters who have averaged 10-plus K's per nine, which would be the largest that list has been in a single season, and there's Ray, No. 2 on the list. Ray's season ranks 20th all time in K's per nine, and the only left-handers with a higher rate have been Randy Johnson, Chris Sale and Clayton Kershaw. So that's obviously good company to be hanging with. But then there's this: Ray has allowed 163 hits in 155.1 innings, a lot of hits for a pitcher who strikes out so many batters. I did a quick search for all pitchers who have struck out 10-plus batters per nine in a season, a list of 80 seasons. Batters have hit a collective .212 against those pitchers. The worst averages allowed:
1. Pineda, 2016 Yankees: .272
2. Ray, 2016 Diamondbacks: .264
3. Scott Kazmir, 2007 Rays: .251
4. Scherzer, 2012 Tigers: .250
5. Strasburg, 2014 Nationals: .245
5. Zack Greinke, 2011 Brewers: .245
5. Curt Schilling, 2001 Diamondbacks: .245
So what's going on? The fact that Pineda and Ray show up at Nos. 1 and 2 on the list is perhaps an indicator that the game is changing, that it's possible, in this era of strikeouts, to both strike out a lot of hitters and give up a lot of hits because of the approach of hitters. If we relied on FIP -- fielding independent pitching -- we might suggest that Pineda and Ray have simply been unlucky, undone by bad defense or bad luck in allowing a high batting average on balls in play. Among qualified starters, Ray has allowed the second-highest BABIP at .356 (only Collin McHugh is higher) and Pineda is fourth at .344. Except this has happened before to both pitchers. Pineda allowed a .335 BABIP last season and Ray a .317 mark.
In Ray's case, let's see what makes him effective. He's basically a two-pitch guy: fastball and slider (or three, if you separate the four-seamer and two-seamer), mixing in an occasional changeup and curve. He threw his changeup more early in the season but has largely ditched it since June. He has plus velocity, averaging 94 mph on his fastball, which ranks 15th among all qualified starters and second to Danny Duffy among left-handers. The four-seamer has what is called armside run, leading to right-handed batters swinging through a lot of fastballs on the outer half of the plate. Here he is striking out 13 Padres in August, showcasing that good fastball and nasty slider.
With two strikes, Ray has allowed a .171/.231/.246 batting line with a 50 percent strikeout rate. That seems like a great line, and though his strikeout rate here does rank sixth among starters, his batting average and wOBA allowed are right near the MLB average. On hitter's counts, we see an even bigger split from the league average: Ray has allowed a .385/.520/.590 line, ranking 70th out of 80 starters in batting average allowed and 58th in wOBA.
You know who has a similar problem? Fernandez, who has allowed a .405 average in hitter's counts. Ray just gets into more hitter's counts than Fernandez. Strasburg, who also showed up on that list above, has allowed a .379 average and .723 slugging in hitter's counts, ranking 78th in wOBA allowed. Those guys all have good velocity and perhaps rely too much on fastballs when behind in the count. Ray has the fifth-highest percentage of fastballs thrown in hitter's counts and allows a .388 average in those counts. Fernandez has allowed a .405 average on his fastball in hitter's counts. The point: Hitters can hit a good fastball when they know it's coming.
Compare those results to a guy like Kyle Hendricks, who has allowed a .229 average in hitter's counts. He doesn't throw hard but has good sinking movement and will also mix in a changeup or cutter nearly half the time when behind in the count. Ray's slider is a great swing-and-miss pitch, but it's in the strike zone only 38 percent of the time, thus the over-reliance on having to throw the fastball if he's behind. Opposing hitters know the scouting reports. They'll sit on the fastball when they're ahead.
Ray is still a young pitcher who doesn't turn 25 until October, so there's room for improvement and learning here. His biggest key will be to improve his fastball command so he doesn't fall into as many hitter's counts in the first place. Bringing back (and improving) that changeup, throwing the curveball more or maybe developing a cutter would help as well. I'm reminded of Scherzer, another guy who used to get into trouble (and still does at times) when he simply tries to throw his fastball past hitters. Scherzer has said that developing his curveball a few years ago was the key to him making the leap to Cy Young winner and contender. Ray has Scherzer-caliber stuff; he might just need to find one more pitch to add to his arsenal. If that happens, he'll not only have one of the best strikeout rates in the game, but could also turn into one of the best pitchers.