Collette Calls: Who Can Be the 2022 Robbie Ray?

Collette Calls: Who Can Be the 2022 Robbie Ray?

This article is part of our Collette Calls series.

"The Next _______" can be an exercise in futility as well as one that puts an unfair label on players. We see it quite a bit in real-life sports as people look for the next great name in a sport. Fantasy baseball is no different, and we see it every year, but mainly in a hindsight manner; with some regrets, we should have seen the breakout/bust coming. This very question was raised to me by Jeff Erickson as we shared a table at the back of the room at First Pitch Arizona. 

The discussion evolved from discussing the tweet below where I showed how my respective teams finished the season:

Jeff asked me some of the contributing factors to my success in pitching, hypothesizing that Robbie Ray was on many of the teams. Ray, in fact, was on several of my rosters based off some work I had done with him to prepare for a podcast very early in the offseason. I was initially excited for him in 2020 with a re-worked delivery, but after watching a single outing early in the season, that excitement went out the window. What did get my interest late in the season was how Ray re-worked his delivery with positive results — in-season

"The Next _______" can be an exercise in futility as well as one that puts an unfair label on players. We see it quite a bit in real-life sports as people look for the next great name in a sport. Fantasy baseball is no different, and we see it every year, but mainly in a hindsight manner; with some regrets, we should have seen the breakout/bust coming. This very question was raised to me by Jeff Erickson as we shared a table at the back of the room at First Pitch Arizona. 

The discussion evolved from discussing the tweet below where I showed how my respective teams finished the season:

Jeff asked me some of the contributing factors to my success in pitching, hypothesizing that Robbie Ray was on many of the teams. Ray, in fact, was on several of my rosters based off some work I had done with him to prepare for a podcast very early in the offseason. I was initially excited for him in 2020 with a re-worked delivery, but after watching a single outing early in the season, that excitement went out the window. What did get my interest late in the season was how Ray re-worked his delivery with positive results — in-season — and how he was quickly re-signed by Toronto this winter. That was enough to put him on my radar and make him a target later in drafts or in the end game for auctions for speculation play. Once he took the mound in camp and started throwing consistently hard with better command, I was all in. The problem is, so were others so his draft price climbed each week of the draft season.

Before defining who this coming season's Robbie Ray could be, it would be helpful to define who he was at this point of the previous offseason. His 2021 Fantasy Outlook was incredibly harsh in hindsight:

If you came here looking for a case to draft Ray, you've come to the wrong place. Simply put, there is nothing to hang your hat on here. Ray made 12 appearances (11 starts) between Arizona and Toronto last season and went 2-5 with a 6.62 ERA. The lefty gained a tick of velocity but it did not matter; in fact, Ray's already-poor control only worsened, with his walk rate reaching a truly disastrous level at 17.9%. His struggles with the long ball only got worse as Ray served up 2.26 HR/9. He can still get his strikeouts around all the walks and homers, but it's not enough to salvage his fantasy value. The damage he's capable of doing to the ratio categories makes him a dangerous pitcher to have in your active lineup -- you could be left digging out of the hole for weeks. If you have to pick him up to stream him at some point, Godspeed. Try your best not to get to that point.

His 2020 write-up provided more of the same:

Pitch inefficiency continues to haunt Ray. His 33 starts tied for the eighth most, but 174.1 innings checked in as 44th most. While an 11.2 BB% in tandem with a 31.5 K% contributed to high pitch counts, a 1.55 HR/9 also led to him hitting the showers early. Ray fanned double-digit hitters seven times, including in his last two starts of the season. However, he also issued at least four free passes 10 times with another 10 allowing multiple homers. Of slight concern is Ray's velocity has dipped for two straight seasons. Still just 28 years old, there's a chance Ray's command and control improve, but if they do not, a further decline could lower strikeouts, his primary fantasy asset. There's no harbinger of a change. Until Ray demonstrates consistently better control and command, he is what he is -- a plus for strikeouts but a big ratio risk, best streamed in favorable matchups.

Overall, Ray came into the 2021 season as a pitcher with the following characteristics:

  • One good fantasy season with a career of bad ones
  • An above-average strikeout rate
  • A continual case of gopheritis thanks to a lot of flyballs
  • Perpetually bad ratios
  • Issues with splits
  • Extreme issues with the times through the order penalty

In combing through the rosters from 2021, I came up with one pitcher who fits most, if not all of those conditions as he heads into the 2022 season. His name is Andrew Mark Heaney. Here me out.

"One good fantasy season with a career of bad ones"

Heaney had an excellent rookie season in 2015 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.20 WHIP while going 6-4 in 18 starts. The problem for Heaney has been it has been all downhill from there with his ERA, and he has yet to win double-digit games in a season. Still, he meets this qualification so we shall move on.

"An above-average strikeout rate"

The league-wide strikeout rate since Heaney entered the league is 21.2 percent; Heaney has a career strikeout rate of 24.2 percent and has consistently finished above the league average in his full season since his injury and recovery in 2016 and 2017:

"A continual case of gopheritis thanks to a lot of flyballs"

Heaney has, more often than not, finished worse than the league average by HR/9 with the injury-impacted short sample sizes in 2016 and 2017 skewing the graph:

"Perpetually bad ratios"

We will focus on ERA here as Heaney has mostly had good WHIP's in his full seasons:

Season

IP

WHIP

2015

105.2

1.20

2018

180.0

1.20

2019

95.1

1.29

2020

66.2

1.23

2021

129.2

1.32

His ERA, however, has been a much different story:

"Issues with splits"

Heaney's splits over the past four seasons look as such:

vs Hand

Batters Faced

ERA

xFIP

K-BB%

wOBA

vs LHH

482

3.90

3.39

20%

.305

vs RHH

1513

5.09

4.15

19%

.327

Heaney allows a higher batting average (.262) to lefties because of his two-pitch approach to lefties, but has a much larger problem with home runs (1.8 HR/9 vs 1.0 HR/9) vs. righties, which is fuels the disparity in his ERAs in that time.

"Extreme issues with the times through the order penalty"

Using the same data points in the previous table, this is what Heaney's trips through the order look like the last four seasons:

TTO

Batters Faced

ERA

xFIP

K-BB%

wOBA

First time

790

4.17

3.54

24%

.317

Second time

746

4.85

4.21

16%

.326

Third/Fourth

459

5.85

4.32

17%

.321

Oddly enough, his issues with homers are more exacerbated the second time through a lineup than the third time through, but things do get progressively worse for him after a trip through the order given his approach.

Admittedly, the path for Heaney to come from where he is to something remotely close to where Ray was in 2021 is tough to imagine. Then again, Ray's path to 2021 stardom was tough to imagine as well. On the plus side, Heaney does have a decent amount of red ink on his 2021 rankings to show that all is not lost:

Even by the Stuff+ work Eno Sarris has done, Heaney's final grade this season came in right around the same as Alek Manoah, Shane Bieber and Jose Urquidy to name a few guys. Heaney gets more interesting if he comes up with a new pitch to use against lefties and give righties something else to look at. Heaney likes to work with the changeup away to righties, the curveball to both sides of the plate and the fastball up. A cutter or a slider almost makes too much sense not to try ,and perhaps this career crossroads is just the impetus Heaney needs to try to change. 

Given the recent success of San Francisco picking up lost causes and turning them into something useful, not to mention the free-agent status of most of their rotation, Heaney's reclamation could receive a nice boost. He would just need to look to what they've done with Kevin Gausman, Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani and how the coaches helped each to accentuate what they did well and reduce what they did not do well. For Heaney, it is not a stuff problem as much as a location and command problem. His time with the Yankees was predictably forgettable, but now he can pick his team for the first time in his career and you should keep an eye on where he lands because I do not believe his fantasy relevancy is over just yet.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Collette
Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Sleeper and the Bust podcast every Sunday. A ten-time FSWA finalist, Jason won the FSWA's Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year award in 2013 and the Baseball Series of the Year award in 2018 for Collette Calls.
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