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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Robbie Ray

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Fresh off winning the 2021 AL Cy Young, the lefty hurler is set to command a massive payday .

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and if you’re like me, you’ll have left all your food shopping to do at the last minute. Hopefully the Yankees are more prudent with their time management this winter, as their needs are many. Luckily, this is one of the most loaded free agent markets in recent memory, and New York can give their team a huge boost entering next season with a handful of impact signings.

It seems like we say this every offseason, but once again, starting pitching is near the top of the Yankees’ list of needs. Yesterday I previewed Steven Matz, who according to multiple reports may sign in the coming hours. If the Yankees are looking for a little more oomph, they could turn to his ex-teammate and crown jewel of the Blue Jays’ 2021 starting rotation: Robbie Ray.

2021 Statistics: 32 games, 193.1 IP, 2.84 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.36 xFIP, 11.5 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 3.9 fWAR

Previous Contract: Signed one-year, $8 million contract with Blue Jays.

Ray just completed the best season of his career en route to collecting the 2021 AL Cy Young Award ahead of Gerrit Cole. Among qualified starters, he sat in the top-ten in MLB in innings pitched, ERA, xFIP, and K-BB%. Like his now ex-teammate Matz, 2021 also represented a rebound year for Ray, bouncing back from posting the worst walk rate (18.6 percent), second-worst ERA (6.89), fourth-worst fWAR (-0.4), fifth-worst xFIP (5.97) and sixth-worst FIP (6.56) in MLB among starters with at least 40 innings pitched in 2020.

Ray has always been one of the game’s premier strikeout artists since his debut in 2014. He led MLB with 248 strikeouts in 2021, and recorded the most strikeouts (1,241) through his first 1000 innings pitched in MLB history, as well as owning the highest K/9 ratio (11.3) in MLB history. It was his struggles with the free pass that kept him from achieving his maximum potential — between his first season in Arizona in 2015 and 2020, Ray owned the second-highest walk rate (11.1 percent) of any starter in baseball.

So just stop walking guys and he’ll turn into one of the top starters in baseball, right? Actually, yes. That’s exactly what propelled him Cy Young glory. Ray cut his walk rate to 6.7 percent, or roughly half of his average across the previous four seasons. But how did he achieve such a drastic improvement in just one year?

The answer, as it turns out, was maddeningly simple: just throw the ball in the zone more. Granted, the path to getting to that conclusion is a little more complex, but at the end of the day, you’re going to be a lot more successful than not by throwing strikes.

Kaitlyn McGrath of The Athletic (subscription required) provided a thorough breakdown of the changes Ray made that allowed him to find the strike zone on a more consistent basis, but it really all boils down to part-mechanical adjustment and part-philosophical adjustment. Ray made a light tweak to his mechanics that unlocked almost two mph more on his four-seamer. This gave him the confidence to throw the pitch not only at a career-high 59.4 percent clip but also in the zone a career-high 59.9 percent of the time.

This added velocity, life, command, and confidence with the fastball worked wonders for his slider, which transformed into a truly devastating offering. Ray’s slider was worth a career-best -11 runs per Statcast’s Run Value and induced a whiff 45.8 percent of the time. When a pitcher boasts a high-octane fastball with which he is not afraid to attack the zone, it makes the slider that much more effective. In fact, Ray was the only pitcher in MLB with at least 100 strikeouts on two different pitches — the four-seamer and slider.

The most amazing aspect of all of this was the contract Ray played on in 2021. He was incontrovertibly the bargain signing of last offseason, inking a one-year, $8 million deal early in free agency to remain with the Blue Jays. There will be no such bargain this time around. Reigning Cy Young winners entering their age-30 seasons do not hit the market all that often, and Ray picked a perfect time to have a career year. FanGraphs predicts a four-year, $112 million pact for the lefty, while MLB Trade Rumors pegs him for five years and $130 million.

Rumors linking the Yankees and Ray have yet to emerge, but as arguably the top starting pitcher on the market, they would be wise to at least check in. Varying outlets have linked the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Angels to the southpaw, while others have speculated that the White Sox, Giants, and Mariners could have interest as well, so New York are certain to face stiff competition. No trade deadline was complete without speculation over a Yankees trade for Ray while he was with the Diamondbacks, so it wouldn’t surprise if that interest still lingered. In the meantime, one can dream of a Yankees rotation headlined by the top two finishers in the 2021 Al Cy Young race.