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A Robbie Ray Resurgence, If You Can Call It That

Robbie Ray, in case you haven’t heard, is one of the most curious cases in all of baseball. Sam Miller puts it a bit more eloquently than I, but suffice it to say that depending on how you look at it, Ray is either a replacement level pitcher, or one of the best in the game. This is perplexing; no matter how precise our measures get, no matter how much information we pour into Statcast, there are still pitchers where we aren’t sure if they are good at preventing runs, or bad at preventing runs.

This raises another question: if we don’t even know what a pitcher is now, then how can we predict what that pitcher will look like in the future? The answer is pretty intuitive, actually: likely somewhere in between our worst and best interpretations of him.

Let me elaborate: let’s say that, for example, we determine Ray was as bad as ERA said he was in 2016: so, about five runs per nine innings. That means that there’s a good chance we regress that positively the following year, because even though that means he is a pretty bad pitcher, past performance (about a 4.38 ERA prior to that) indicates he would be about 4.50 runs allowed per nine innings.

Now let’s say that he’s actually as good as FIP or DRA says he is, so about 3 to 3.5 runs per nine innings. It’s very unlikely, given his historically high BABIP and home run rate, that those marks will suddenly regress because of some minor league equivalencies. I doubt that. But if we even buy into the argument a little bit, that his immense ability to create swings and misses is the better indicator, even in that case he would regress a bit negatively, to fit with his recent performance.

That means that if we buy into him being a little better than the worst interpretation, and a little worse than the best interpretation, then that makes him about league average, right? That sounds about right, about four runs allowed per nine innings.

I don’t think I buy at all the idea that DRA and FIP somehow sees something that the lay person cannot, because it also believes in some make-believe context-neutral baseball environment that also doesn’t exist. In reality context is a really important thing, because baseball players learn that from a young age. Pitching with two strikes, or pitching with runners on base, is always considered a point of pressure. It’s the same reason why someone like Michael Pineda, who is also a FIP and DRA darling, has always pitched poorly situationally, meaning that his ability to somehow “beat” his ERA-FIP differential is dubious science at best.

All of this is to say that saying that Ray is a candidate for resurgence is more like saying that he’s a candidate for more clearly defining what kind of pitcher he is, and whether he is more like the DRA or the ERA version of himself.

As I’ve said, I take the median between those versions of Ray. Not to say that’s scientific, and I guess you could call it cop-out, but I believe it: I don’t believe, given Ray’s swinging-strike ability and previous average performance, he’s as bad as a 5 ERA pitcher. But I doubt he’s elite, not a sub-3 DRA that’s for sure, especially given his home run rate, his walk rate (3.57), and BABIP’s well north of .300. His rising velocity gives us hope that maybe he’s hitting his physical prime, but unless he betters his command and cuts down on the home runs, then matching his FIP or DRA is a pipe dream.

Ray isn’t someone I would bet on stardom, nor would I even say he’s a top-30 starter in 2017, but that doesn’t mean he’s not intriguing, nor interesting to watch. If you’re in a deep fantasy league, or you’re looking to make a friendly bet, then Ray is a good one. There are very few guarantees in baseball, nor is any prediction a good one. But if I would make the claim that one player’s results will be better in 2017 than they were in 2016, my pick would be Robbie Ray. Don’t ask WAR how good he is, or even someone as smart as Sam Miller, just take the slight under on his ERA.

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Matt Provenzano is a recent graduate of Cornell University, where he studied Information Science and Law and Society. He has been a Staff Writer at SB Nation's Pinstripe Alley since 2013, and a baseball fan since 2002.

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