An MLB record was broken last night. Toronto Blue Jays’ southpaw Robbie Ray through a seven-inning gem last night (4 H, 1 BB, 2 ER, 10 K) en route to a victory over the Baltimore Orioles. He’s now recorded three straight games with double-digit strikeouts. That’s not the record though. Of all the great strikeout pitchers in MLB history, Robbie Ray — in his eighth year in the Big Leagues, on the third team of his career, with a record barely over .500 and an ERA over 4.0 — has recorded the most punchouts through 1,000 innings pitched.
Now, some of you may be thinking: “This guy? I’ve heard of him, but I didn’t think he was a big name or anything.” He’s not. He hasn’t been for several years now. He had a phenomenal season in 2017 for Arizona, where he finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting, but he’s been just alright since — posting a 3.96 ERA and 4.25 FIP across 509 innings pitched.
What’s crazy is that, throughout Robbie Ray’s career, not once has he led Major League Baseball in strikeouts or even strikeouts per nine innings for that matter. He led the National League in K/9 in 2017 and currently leads the American League in strikeouts with 202, but he’s never been the outright leader in either category. He’s just been consistently near the top of the Major Leagues in both stats. That’s a model of consistency no one has ever matched, and it shows since Ray is the all-time MLB leader in strikeouts per nine at 11.2among pitchers with at least 1000 innings pitched.
Obviously, the modern era of baseball has a lot to do with Ray’s success in the strikeout department. The 2012 season was the first season to see over 35,000 batters retired via strikeout. It was an unprecedented mark, and yet just five years later, the 40,000 strikeout threshold was surpassed. Each of the last three seasons has not surpassed the 40K mark, but each season has witnessed more strikeouts than the last. MLB scouts are looking for velocity now more than ever. Big guys with strong arms are the new hot commodity in baseball. There are other factors that play into a scout’s interest in an up-and-coming player, but velocity seems to be.
Yet, strangely, Ray has stayed relatively separate from baseball’s new era. He doesn’t overpower hitters with blazing speed (his average fastball velocity sits at under 95 miles per hour — 40th among qualified pitchers). Now, if we take a look at the top strikeout pitchers in Major League Baseball this season: Corbin Burnes (96.3 mph avg. fastball velocity; 21st in MLB), Gerrit Cole (97.6; 7th), Dylan Cease (96.5; 17th), etc. — most seem to rely on that velocity to record punchouts. Sure, there are some that fall beneath Ray near the top of that list — i.e.: Max Scherzer (94.3; 57th) & Yu Darvish (94.6; 44th) — but the overall trend across Major League Baseball is, as Kanye West once said, “Faster, better, stronger.”
So, how has Ray been able to maintain such a consistently high strikeout rate, and why is his career ERA so much higher than his counterparts despite his high strikeout numbers? The answer to that second part is probably what you’d expect. Robbie Ray delivers more walks than a dog-sitting service. Of the 50 qualified starting pitchers with the highest strikeout rates since 2014, Ray ranks second in walks per nine (3.95). Only Francisco Liriano has a higher rate (4.4). Ray also allows a lot of home runs. Most people consider this to be Ray’s biggest flaw. He’s allowed a hard-hit percentage over 40 percent in five of his seven seasons. A lot of this has been due to poor placement from his curveball. Throughout 2021, the most common spot for his curveball, which he throws approximately 7 percent of the time, is middle-middle. I don’t think I need to tell you how bad a hanging curveball is. Opponents are hitting .346 with a slugging percentage of .577 against that pitch in 2021. In 2020, they were hitting .474 with a .684 slugging. Maybe he should remove that breaker from his repertoire, or at least learn to bring it down. His slider has been a much more reliable putaway pitch, and his sinker has shown a lot of promise as a putaway option should Ray opt to use it more often.
Ray is such an anomaly in today’s MLB. He has a case for the greatest strikeout pitcher of all-time, yet is nowhere close to being an elite all-around pitcher. Yes, he’s having a great season right now, but he’s going to need to put together a string of seasons similar to 2017 and 2021 before we can put him in “elite” territory.
Anyways, I guess what I’m trying to say is “Congrats, Robbie Ray! This is an incredible accomplishment! Your career has been a marvel, and I look forward to seeing it continue.”