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Astros offseason: Consider Robbie Ray

Sometimes you have to wait until after Christmas to find the best deals.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret; the Astros have been “in” on Jose Quintana, probably the most valuable trade chip left this offseason. In all likelihood, though, the White Sox’s asking price—Joe Musgrove, Francis Martes, and Kyle Tucker—is too rich for their blood. Quintana is tailor-made for Houston’s rotation, but Chicago has little incentive to lower its demands, given how reliable, inexpensive, and controllable the southpaw is. And of course, the ‘Stros have competition for the lefty’s services.

Indeed, the opportunity cost would be too big. As has been suggested by Dave Cameron, Managing Editor of FanGraphs, if the Astros traded Musgrove and Martes, the former of which is projected by ZIPS to be around league-average for 2017, they’d negate a chunk of the value added by Quintana, resulting in a net gain of only about two wins above replacement (WAR). (As for the “Well, what about the playoff rotation?” argument, World-Series rosters come in various flavors.) Even if Martes were swapped out with David Paulino, whom ZIPS projects about as well as Musgrove, the Astros would still lose two of their top three pitching prospects, and unless you firmly believe Chris Devenski is a starter, the organization lacks MLB-quality arms to replace them in case of injuries or struggles. So, considering the sky-high price for a talented pitcher performing to the best of the abilities, the Astros should consider a pitcher who yes, is talented, but whose stats have not always matched that talent.

Which brings me to Robbie Ray. Statistically, he looks like the most enigmatic starting pitcher in MLB. Observe his WAR figures from last season:

bWAR (WAR calculated by Baseball-Reference): 0.7

fWAR (WAR calculated by FanGraphs): 3.0

WARP (WAR calculated by Baseball Prospectus): 4.8

A few writers have tried to pin down the real Robbie Ray of 2016, he of the 4.90 ERA and 3.76 FIP. The likely conclusion, insofar as there is one, is that the lefty’s year stands in the middle of these totals. Reductive as it is to just average out these three WARs, a WAR of 2.8 feels about right for Ray, especially when combined with the eye test. From a 25-year-old who won’t hit arbitration until 2018, 2.8 WAR per year is also super-valuable.

More importantly, there’s reason to believe Ray’s ERA will lower in 2017. He’s excelled at the things a pitcher can more or less control. Across 174 innings in 2016, he raised his K/9 to an eye-popping 11.25 while keeping his BB/9 to 3.7, producing a K/BB ratio slightly better than Dallas Keuchel’s. Further, look at Ray’s batted-ball profile, per FanGraphs:

Season Ground-ball/fly-ball ratio Line-Drive % Ground-ball % Fly-ball % Infield-fly-ball % Home-run/fly-ball ratio Skill-interactive earned-run average
Season Ground-ball/fly-ball ratio Line-Drive % Ground-ball % Fly-ball % Infield-fly-ball % Home-run/fly-ball ratio Skill-interactive earned-run average
2014 0.86 23.8 35.2 41 7 11.6 4.78
2015 1.25 22.2 43.3 34.6 6.5 7.3 4.05
2016 1.4 21.7 45.7 32.6 10.3 15.5 3.59

Those are career lows in what a pitcher wants to minimize (line drives and flyballs) and career highs in what a pitcher wants to maximize (groundballs and infield flies). Ray struck out more batters per game than he ever did before, allowed weaker in-the-ballpark contact than he ever did before, and kept walks around his career norm. Oh, and he raised his average fastball velocity by almost a full mile per hour, up to 94. Did I mention he’s 25?

But if Ray is so good, why the unsightly ERA? Well, peep that career-high—I’d call it fluky—home-run/fly-ball ratio, which Chase Field doubtlessly contributed to. Moreover, the 2016 Diamondbacks played defense in the same way the Cleveland Browns play defense. Jean Segura, Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, Chris Owings, Rickie Weeks, Yasmany Tomas, Michael Bourne: All of them played a ton of games, all of them posted negative defensive value, and some of them were downright atrocious. (Looking at you, Yasmany.) Combine this group with the absence of A.J. Pollock, the Diamondbacks’ ambivalence toward shifting, and some plain ol’ bad luck, and Ray & Co. were doomed to underperform:

Pitcher ERA FIP xFIP
Pitcher ERA FIP xFIP
Robbie Ray 4.9 3.76 3.45
Zack Greinke 4.37 4.12 3.98
Archie Bradley 5.02 4.1 4.1
Shelby Miller 6.15 4.87 5.06
Patrick Corbin 5.15 4.84 4.23

Now, I must admit that this entire article is predicated on the notion that Arizona would listen to offers on Ray in the first place, a notion I believe plausible for two reasons. First, by trading Jean Segura, the D-Backs have shown themselves willing to move young, controllable talent as long as comparable, MLB-ready young talent comes in return. The Astros have such players, and the price would sting less than what the White Sox have asked. Choose one of Musgrove, Martes, or Paulino, one of Teoscar Hernandez, Derek Fisher, or Ramon Laureano, then a high-upside name or two from the lower minors. With Ray, Houston could be looking at 80–85% of Quintana’s production for less prospect value overall, not to mention more youth and financial flexibility.

Second, the D-Backs’ new front office appears less deluded than Dave Stewart & Co. were about the team’s roster, so maybe it’ll entertain an offer. While a 40-man squad with Goldschmidt, Pollock, and Zack Greinke may not get entirely torn down, some more youth-for-youth moves are in order. Skilled as Ray is, new general manager Mike Hazen could see this winter as the time to listen on him, as happened with Segura. The lefty was barely league-average in 2015, has never thrown more than a 175 innings in a season, and has succeeded only in the National League, so who’s to say 2016 wasn’t a blip? (Besides me right here, of course.) Ray is a risk Hazen may prefer to exchange for two or three other ones, offering Arizona a more well-rounded roster. (Hernandez, Fisher, or Laureano in Chase Field > Tomas in Chase Field.) With the Dodgers and Giants still competing, the D-Backs are a year away—at least—from challenging, and maybe they don’t want to bet against Ray faltering, performance-wise or health-wise.

Is Robbie Ray a more valuable pitcher than Jose Quintana? Of course not, and if the White Sox lower their price, the Astros should pounce. However, Ray is better than one would think, another young, strikeout-happy lefty. A riskier lefty, sure, but that’s what lowers his cost. At the very least, he exemplifies the type of high-upside starter the Astros should target in this sellers’ market. Get Phoenix on the phone.