Brian Cashman has long had a fascination with a certain type of pitcher: the guy who’s just one step away from really becoming something special. Sometimes the question is can they strike more guys out, like Sonny Gray, and sometimes it’s can they pitch 180 innings, like James Paxton. The Yankees’ GM certainly has a type, trusting his deep analytics department to fill the gap between what a pitcher is now and what they can be later.
Free agency aside, it looks like the pitcher Cashman is most interested in on the trade market is Robbie Ray, who perfectly fits the mould of good-but-one-tweak-from-great:
Over the past two years, Ray produced elite strikeout numbers, comparable to the Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Max Scherzer. The reason Ray is available for trade, though, is that he’s not particularly good at the other side of pitching: keeping guys off base. His K-BB% is mediocre, just a tick above the 18% median of the 91 pitchers in that plot. His walk rate is dead last in this set! That delta highlights how much Ray struggles to find the plate, even when he has very real swing-and-miss stuff.
That’s the tweak the Yankees feel like they can make if they land Ray. If the team can pull that walk rate down to the median of this sample—tie Ray with James Paxton at 7.6%—the Yankees would effectively have Walker Buehler in the rotation. That’s tantalizing, but it’s also a substantial jump for a pitcher to make.
Ray uses a slider and curve about 48% of the time, which perfectly plays into the high strikeouts, high walks profile. It also suits the Yankees’ philosophy; the best run of success Paxton had in 2019 was when he incorporated a knuckle-curve the team convinced him to throw. Every mark against Ray as a quality starter can be turned around into a possible reason why the Yankees would be interested in him.
In the end, it’s probably a control issue. Ray’s under contract for one more year, hitting free agency at the same time as Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka, incidentally. That means the Yankees only have one year guaranteed for Ray to make the adjustment to a harder league, make 30 starts, and find a way to bring that walk rate down to something approaching normal, lest the better offenses of the AL tag Ray as he issues free pass after free pass.
Again, for every negative, there’s a spin that could work in the Yankees’ favor. With only one year of control and a massive weak spot in his game, Ray will come cheaper than most of the other pitchers available on the trade front. BaseballTradeValues.com is certainly not perfect, but its valuation pegs Ray at worth about $18mm, meaning a one-for-one trade for a player like Miguel Andujar would be an overpay for a Yankee team that has multiple options for solving their rotation questions.
I’m not someone that’s a buyer on Ray. You’re asking a lot of a guy to adjust to a new league, while simultaneously trying to go from the worst walk rate in baseball to average. I can see why the Yankees would like him, though, and coming cheap with a new pitching coach in the fold could make him an intriguing name if certain free agency decisions don’t pan out.