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Robbie Ray has found his footing with the Diamondbacks

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The Tigers may already regret trading Ray to Arizona.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Tigers fans could write a multi-volume epic tragedy detailing the exploits of former Tigers prospects thriving on other MLB teams. It’s the price a team pays for trying to “win now” at all costs. There’s Eugenio Suarez, who has already hit seven home runs and accumulated 1.7 fWAR with the Cincinnati Reds this season. There’s Hernan Perez, who hit 13 home runs and stole 34 bases with the Milwaukee Brewers last year. There’s Devon Travis, the second baseman of the future for the Toronto Blue Jays after two solid campaigns in 2015 and 2016. On Tuesday night, the Tigers will face another talented young ex-teammate that is now contributing to another team: Robbie Ray.

Tigers fans are unlikely to have warm fuzzy feelings for Ray, 25-year-old lefthander for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He wasn’t exactly a fan favorite during his brief stint as a Tiger. Acquired in the winter of 2013 in a trade with the Washington Nationals that sent Doug Fister to D.C. and also brought infielder Steve Lombardozzi and left-hander Ian Krol to the Motor City, Ray’s very existence in the Tigers organization was resented by many. After two solid seasons in the Olde English D, fans were loathe to see Fister traded away for three largely unproven players.

In this context, it would have been hard for Ray to endear himself to Tigers fans. He would always be associated with an unpopular trade and unfavorably compared to Fister. It didn’t help when Fister had an excellent 2014 campaign with the Nationals, posting a 2.41 ERA and receiving votes for the NL Cy Young Award. While Tigers fans looked longingly at Fister’s numbers in 2014, Ray posted an 8.16 ERA in limited action with the Tigers. Ray turned in some absolutely miserable performances with the Tigers that year, including an outing against the Minnesota Twins where he gave up six runs in 1 13 innings, and a start against the Texas Rangers where he gave up seven runs in 3 13 frames.

Given Ray’s poor performance, I imagine many fans were happy to see him traded for Shane Greene in the winter of 2014 in a three-team deal that involved the Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees. The trade was positively received by many; Greene was coming off a great rookie campaign in 2014, and appeared to be a more major league ready arm at that moment in time.

Fast forward to 2017, and I wonder how many Tigers fans would take back this trade. Setting aside Domingo Leyba — the other prospect the Tigers sent to Arizona in this trade, who may yet come back to haunt them like Suarez and others have — Greene’s performance in a Tigers uniform has been mixed to say the least. He was too ineffective and injured to pitch out of the rotation in 2015, and also had bouts of inconsistency as a reliever in 2016. Although he has once again shown flashes of brilliance in 2017 — becoming a candidate to replace Francisco Rodriguez? — whether or not he will be able to sustain this success is an open question.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Greene and think he will be a great reliever if he gets his command issues sorted out. The real reason why Tigers fans should have second thoughts about the Robbie Ray trade is that he has finally flashed some of his upside in a Diamondbacks uniform.

Strikeout leaders - 2016

Name Team K/9
Name Team K/9
Jose Fernandez Marlins 12.49
Robbie Ray Diamondbacks 11.25
Max Scherzer Nationals 11.19
Noah Syndergaard Mets 10.68
Michael Pineda Yankees 10.61
Chris Archer Rays 10.42
Justin Verlander Tigers 10.04

Last season for the Diamondbacks, Ray was one of the premier strikeout artists in all of baseball. His strikeout numbers put him in elite company, posting a better per-inning strikeout rate than Detroit’s own Justin Verlander.

The 2016 season wasn’t all good news for Ray. He posted an inflated 4.90 ERA, although his 3.53 FIP suggests he may have been a victim of bad luck. Nonetheless, 2016 continued a trend of improvement for him after his disastrous debut season with Detroit. In 2015, Ray posted a 3.52 ERA and 2.1 fWAR. In 2016, he was worth 3.0 fWAR. For reference, this would have made him the second-most valuable pitcher on the 2016 Tigers, tied with Michael Fulmer and trailing only Verlander’s 5.2 fWAR campaign.

Robbie Ray Career Stats

Season IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
Season IP K/9 BB/9 ERA FIP WAR
2014 28.2 5.97 3.45 8.16 5.23 -0.1
2015 127.2 8.39 3.45 3.52 3.53 2.1
2016 174.1 11.25 3.67 4.9 3.76 3
2017 36.1 12.14 4.46 3.47 3.22 0.8
Stats via FanGraphs

So far in 2017, Ray is still striking out batters at an elite rate, improving upon his numbers from last year while posting an excellent 3.47 ERA and 3.22 FIP. Ray is accomplishing this with a fastball that sits around 93 miles per hour, in addition to a slider, curveball, and changeup. FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris argued that the key to Ray’s success so far has been the emergence of his curveball, a new pitch he debuted this season. Ray still struggles with walks now and then, but overall, the Diamondbacks have to be pleased with his development.

Did the Tigers give up on Ray too soon? Should we grab our pitchforks and revolt against the Tigers organization for denying us a rotation featuring three of the most exciting young lefties in baseball: Ray, Daniel Norris, and Matthew Boyd? The verdict is still out on who “won the trade,” but so far, it’s looking like Tigers fans might one day soon add Robbie Ray to the lists of prospects who got away.

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Jake to the BYB staff! May his time here be longer lived (and more celebrated) than Robbie Ray’s.