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The Robbie Ray-Blake Snell comparison chart

Did the Giants trade for a version of a top tier free agent?

About 48 months ago, the San Francisco Giants grabbed Tyler Anderson off the waiver wire as they headed into an offseason wherein their ace Madison Bumgarner was set to walk away from the only franchise he’d ever known to that point. In a transaction analysis post, I made this comparison chart between the two lefties:

My conclusion then was a bit cowardly:

I’m not saying Tyler Anderson is the next Madison Bumgarner, nor am I suggesting the Giants think they’ve found a suitable replacement, just that there’s some overlap between the two, and maybe that did somehow factor into the Giants’ thinking.

Remember, this is when I was trying (and largely failing) to be less “me” as the site’s managing editor, and so giving the benefit of the doubt or not being so cynical about every move was definitely a priority of mine. 2024 me would’ve concluded, “I’m not saying Tyler Anderson is the next Madison Bumgarner, only that the Giants believe they’ve found a pitcher who projects to provide Bumgarneresque next season.”

And then there’d be rational criticism in the comments because I would have failed to make it clear that Bumgarner doesn’t project to be an ace-level pitcher anymore, and that whatever #3/#4 starter the Giants see in him going forward they see in Anderson, who will cost less. So, it’s in this spirit that I turn my attention to the big trade the Giants made nearly three weeks ago, acquiring lefty Robbie Ray in exchange for Anthony DeSclafani and Mitch Haniger. Is Robbie Ray the “we have ice cream at home” version of Blake Snell?

Ray and Snell have both had two standout seasons in their careers and roughly around the same age. Before Ray won the Cy Young in 2021, he went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA (162 IP and a 163 ERA+) in his age-25 season of 2017, collecting enough NL Cy Young votes to place 7th. Snell’s first Cy Young season was his age-25 season (2018) and was, of course, much better (21-5, 1.89 ERA/217 ERA+ in 180.2 IP). Ray’s Cy Young year of 21 (13-7, 2.84 ERA/157 ERA+) similarly pales in comparison to Snell’s 23 win, too (14-9, 2.25 ERA/182 ERA+).

In between their two standout seasons, both pitchers were averageish. Ray had a 4.53 ERA (96 ERA+) in 349.2 IP (69 G) from 2018-2020 while Snell had a 3.85 ERA (104 ERA+) from 2019-2022 (85 G). I find that interesting, especially since the Cy Young years are the only times when Snell has pitched 180 innings. In any other season he hasn’t hit 130. But just to be absolutely clear: Blake Snell has been a better pitcher than Robbie Ray over the course of their respective careers. Snell’s 127 ERA+ in 992.2 IP bests Ray’s 109 in 1228.

So, again, this isn’t really an attempt to say that Robbie Ray is as good as Blake Snell but that I am working to see if Ray projects to provide similar value to Snell in the next 2-3 seasons. We’ve all been making this comparison in our heads because the Giants’ m.o. the past five seasons suggests that they frequently pivot away from/miss out on high-cost stars to find/and settle on a player or players who cost less and therefore have lower downside risk, but project to provide similar value in the near-term or in the aggregate.

Robbie Ray is 6-2 and 225 lbs, while Snell is 6-4 and 225 lbs, and uses those extra two inches to get 12-15% more vertical movement than average on his four-seam fastball and perhaps to excel at gaming. But you can see in their deliveries that the extra length or at least their differences in proportions gives Ray a more workmanlike “thrower” delivery while Snell is a more classic ace pitcher type. Sleek and powerful.

And, finally, here’s a three-year comparison between the two. Like I did with Tyler Anderson and Madison Bumgarner, I’m dumping Robbie Ray’s most recent season since it ended in injury requiring Tommy John, so his averages are for 2020-2022 while Snell is 2021-2023:

Ray does have a changeup that he’s used sparingly throughout his career, but usually, his slider-curveball combo has been devastating, with both comfortably averaging 45% Whiff rates in the Statcast era. But Ray’s arsenal has also changed a lot over the years and so it’s possible the Giants might have some ideas for him, perhaps de-emphasizing the most-used pitch of his career (the four-seam fastball) in favor of a sinker, hoping that can setup his slider and curveball even better by being a more effective fastball.

Ray’s home run rate is eye popping. He won a Cy Young with the Blue Jays in 2021, and so that 1.5 HR/9 seems reasonable-ish given that he pitched in the AL East, but the 1.5 in 2022 is staggering. It’s not supposed to be that easy to give up home runs at T-Mobile Park. He gave up 16 in 110.1 home innings for the Mariners (18 starts). Now, it’s harder to hit homers at Oracle Park, so maybe a switch to the sinker (if that’s the plan) plus the park factor will go a long way towards flattening that out.

With Snell, I think I can buy that he’d rather walk a guy than give in — as his wild 5.0 BB/9 in 2023 was balanced out a bit by a 5.8 H/9 — but I also think he’s a pitcher who gets positive outcomes from a high octane fastball and now he’s entering the phase of his career where velocity will drop. Still, have you seen his numbers against the NL West??? He’s 16-6 with a 2.34 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 330 strikeouts in 231.2 IP (44 games).

No, I didn’t forget about Robbie Ray’s tight pants. They’re certainly more amusing than Snell’s gaming cave, but ultimately, Ray is not a better pitcher than Snell and doesn’t figure to be in the next couple of seasons. He’s a year older and returning from Tommy John. Snell has had arthroscopic surgery on his pitching elbow but not yet Tommy John, which certainly increases the risk when signing him to a huge deal and we know that at the end of the day this comes down to cost.

Carlos Rodón parlayed a great season with the Giants into a 6-year, $162 million contract with the Yankees, so figure that was the floor as the offseason began. Snell has a lot more going for him, though, and so it’s even easier to imagine Scott Boras pushing for something like 7/$210 million. That doesn’t fit the Giants’ acquisition model, either, but as Brady notes in yesterday’s mailbag:

At some point you need to bite the bullet, not take the best deal, and try to build a winning team now. Savings accounts are for fiscally responsible individuals, not baseball teams.

Robbie Ray is out until at least the second half, as we all know, and with Alex Cobb still working his way back from hip surgery, and a whole lot of questions about the “rotation,” an expensive and long-term investment on a pitcher would still help the next couple of seasons — but let’s be super clear about this: the Giants wouldn’t be in this situation if they had a different philosophy.

How does a Ray-Snell comparison compare to the Giants’ efforts to pair an arm with Logan Webb at the top of the rotation since letting Kevin Gausman leave after 2021. In a way, it’s a bit like the Bumgarner situation, where the Giants had a void to fill and opted for the lower cost option. Now, the Giants did have interest in Robbie Ray after his Cy Young season of 2021, but the five years and $115 million went against that philosophy.

Has the Giants’ short-term thinking worked out for them in this specific regard or have they wound up spending more money over these past couple of seasons than if they’d simply signed Kevin Gausman? Let’s take a look:

Kevin Gausman, 5 years/$110 million (2022-2026)

2022 salary: $21MM
2023 salary: $21MM
2024 salary: $22MM
2025 salary: $23MM
2026 salary: $23MM

Giants, 5 years/$123.5 million (2022-2026)

Now, here’s where I’ll posit that that dual additions of Rodón and Cobb was an attempt to create Gausman’s value in the aggregate while simultaneously hedging against either being injured. Both players had tremendous upside with significant injury downsides and so the thinking must’ve been “At worst, we can maybe expect 170-200 innings between them.” This same thinking is reflected in the Ray acquisition. Between Ray and Cobb, at worst the Giants might reasonably expect 170-200 innings between them, with enough generated value to approximate a strong #2 starter to pair with Logan Webb.

2022 salary: Alex Cobb ($9MM) + Carlos Rodón ($21.5MM)
2023 salary: Alex Cobb ($9MM)
2024 salary: Alex Cobb ($10MM) + Robbie Ray ($1MM trade bonus makes it $24MM)
2025 salary: Robbie Ray ($25MM)
2026 salary: Robbie Ray ($25MM)

The Giants might think they’ve won the first two years by getting a cumulative 11.7 fWAR with two seasons of Cobb and one year of Rodón for $39.5 million against Gausman’s 11 fWAR for $42 million. It’s the next three years that will really show if they’ll win in a route or if this will simply be “six of one, half a dozen of the other” the situation.

Steamer projections tag Gausman with 4 WAR and Cobb + Ray 2 in 2024, but ZiPS has it closer at 4 to 3.5. So for most fans that’s enough to say, “It’ll be even, and Gausman will probably be worse than that because the Blue Jays didn’t get better.” Fine. And the Snell projections are even better for the Giants: Steamer and ZiPS project a 3-WAR pitcher.

The premise here is that the Giants have expended more energy and money to find another reliable starter or co-ace to pair with Logan Webb, and I think the evidence shows they have, but the co-ace situation was always going to be buttressed by the surrounding depth moves. We saw the Giants load up on Alex Wood, Anthony DeSclafani, Ross Stripling, and Sean Manaea to provide the same low risk, decent to high upside arms to start or provide bulk innings and they’ve continued that practice only now they also have pitching prospects like Kyle Harrison and Keaton Winn they can involve.

Did the Giants sign Jordan Hicks as a pivot once it became clear that Snell’s asking price wasn’t coming down? Possibly. Maybe even probably. But finding guys who could pitch up to a projection to compensate for guys expected to pitch down from a “co-ace” need or projection makes sense. So, if Logan Webb gives you 4-5 WAR, who cares how you get the next 11-12 WAR from your “starters,” as long as you do?

So, Robbie Ray isn’t “we have Blake Snell at home,” he’s “we potentially have Blake Snell in the aggregate for about the same or maybe a little less at home already, so quit complaining and just see what happens.” He’s delayed gratification. Pragmatic and sensible. A way to maximize flexibility.