Robbie Ray in Triple-A

May 3, 2014

In a surprise (and oft-criticized) offseason move, the Detroit Tigers traded Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals. Robbie Ray was considered the prize of the deal, although many evaluators thought him to be a minimal return at best.

Dave Dombrowski, however, sees things differently. In a recent interview with ESPN’s Buster Olney, Dombrowski stated that he believes Ray is a No. 3 starter with the chance to be more, and he was surprised that other clubs didn’t seem to value Ray as highly as the Tigers did. Although Dombrowski also said that Ray needs more refinement in Triple-A, he nonetheless is giving the 23-year-old lefty a spot start next Tuesday against the Houston Astros.

As a member of the Washington Nationals organization, Ray struck out plenty of batters (8.9 career K/9) from Low-A to Double-A. The Tigers decided that Ray was ready for Triple-A, and thus started him at that level to begin the 2014 season. In five starts and a one-inning relief appearance, Ray owns an impressive stat line (albeit with a drastically lower K/9): 29.1 IP, 5 ER, 21 K, 5 BB, 1 HR, .255 BAA.

What stands out most about Ray’s Triple-A numbers is his newfound control. Ray owns a career BB/9 of 3.79, which has been lowered thanks to his 1.53 ratio thus far in Triple-A Toledo. He’s not striking out batters like he has in the past (6.44 K/9 in 2014), instead pitching to contact even in two-strike counts. It’s likely that the control aspect was one of the areas that the Tigers wanted Ray to refine, and he has more than responded.

But what will that mean for Ray once he faces major league hitters?

While I agree with Dombrowski that Ray could be a No. 3 starter, I don’t agree that he could be anything more. Rather, I think Ray will be hard-pressed to be even a No. 4 starter at the major league level.

Why? First and foremost, despite what his Low-A, High-A and Double-A numbers might suggest, Ray lacks an effective, consistent put-away pitch. Most of his strikeouts this year have come on fastballs up in the zone. His curveball (or slurve; sometimes it looks more like a slider) is mostly a waste pitch. He doesn’t command it well, struggles to throw it for strikes, and most hitters are able to take it for a ball or foul it off in two-strike counts.

His changeup is still a work-in-progress, although it sometimes flashes plus potential. It gets more swingthroughs than his curveball does, and I think he will eventually be able to use the pitch to put hitters away once he develops more consistency and confidence.

For now, though, he’ll continue to rely on his fastball, which sits 90-94 mph with late cut movement. In two-strike counts, he can hump up to 96 and power it past hitters up in the zone. He also uses it well to jam right handed batters, who either take it for a called strike or fist it to the left side of the infield.

In his most impressive start this season, Ray went 8.1 scoreless innings against Gregory Polanco’s Indianapolis Indians on April 23. In the outing, Ray struck out seven while walking one and yielding only four hits. Still, he was nowhere near dominant. He struggled to get ahead of hitters and took advantage of a generous strike zone. Nothing about the start blew me away. He did however avoid throwing too many hittable pitches in the zone, even though he worked from behind in the count throughout most of the game.

His worst start of the year also came against Indianapolis, this time on April 12. In four innings, Ray allowed three runs on seven hits, walking two and striking out only three. Although his control was not a problem, his command was not there, and that’s been an issue for Ray throughout the early part of the season.

Falling behind hitters and lacking a true put-away pitch, Ray will struggle in the major leagues. He may be able to skate by against the lackluster Houston Astros next Tuesday, but better clubs will have no problem putting runs on the board against the lefty, especially when his command is erratic.

I still like Ray’s future, although his ceiling is not very high. Dombrowski is right; he needs more time in Triple-A, although he has the arsenal to compete as a fifth starter in the major leagues right now. If Ray can continue to keep his walk rate low and turn his offspeed pitches into decent put-away options, he could fill a spot in the Tigers rotation in the second half of this season and become a nice long-term option for the years to come.  

In addition to his work for Project Prospect, Matt blogs about the minor leagues at Follow him on Twitter for minor league updates, commentary and scouting reports: @MattFosterPP