The Rays did a flurry of free-agent signings before the owners locked out baseball. This is fairly strange for the Rays. Amongst those moves, they signed a reliever to a 2-year deal with $10M guaranteed (plus an option for a third year). That’s very strange for the Rays.
The list is small: Troy Percival, Joel Peralta, Dan Wheeler. The last time the Rays signed any reliever to multiple years was Grant Balfour in 2014. Erik Neander had never done it as GM. Until now.
When the Rays do things that are out of the ordinary, it’s a good idea to investigate more. And oh boy, under the surface you can find a fascinating player in Brooks Raley.
After Raley’s first go of his major league career ended with a few DFA’s, he traveled overseas and spent several successful years in the KBO as a starter with the Lotte Giants. Showcasing new tricks and durability, he averaged about 180 innings per season.
He returned to the states with the Reds, but was quickly traded to the Astros to further craft his spin rate wizardry. Working with the tremendous Brent Strom, Raley saw boosted Cutter usage along with Sliders and Curveballs.
“They told me sweep is a great thing,” Raley said. “They asked me. ‘How far can you get it to go?’ I said, ‘I can really make it go.’ I’ve made myself to have elite wipeout breaking balls just by sweeping it, something I’ve always done. Five, six years ago, before TrackMan and everything else, it wasn’t a plus.”
The advice was good, and Raley took full advantage of it. Raley has ranked top 10 in horizontal movement on his Slider, Curveball, and Cutter each season since his return to the US.
With Raley, he’s taken the Astros advice to heart: everything moves. His pitch breakdown has his top 4 pitches by usage are all movement-based, with Cutter (32.1%), Slider (29%) Sinker (14.9%), and Curveball (12.8%).
And now he heads to what he has described as the “mecca” of pitching in Tampa Bay.
Friend of the site, RJ Anderson had Brooks Raley as his 37th best Free Agent this offseason. If you read that (or listened to RJ with Danny and Brett on the pod) you’d realize that he’s convinced of Raley’s value and potential to be utilized even more as a high-leverage arm.
Why Raley breaks the mold
So what exactly makes this lefty reliever so interesting as to warrant the Rays — a system built and stocked with pitching of all kinds — to guarantee multiple years to? Well, he does a few things extremely well.
Call this dude a press secretary because he’s a spin master.
Regularly his Curve and Slider have been clocked at 3,000 RPM, which is a rarity around baseball. Also, since we live in a world post knowledge of what Spidertak is, let me cut to the chase here with Brooks Raley’s average spin rates:
- Before June memo: 2619
- After June memo: 2595
The enforcement of the ban on sticky substances showed no effect on Raley’s mastery of fastball or breaking ball spin.
He also is in the top 1 percent in suppressing hard contact and exit velocity. As Rays fans, we are well aware of Ryan Yarbrough’s yearly mastery of HardHit% and Exit Velocity dampening. Yarbrough has given up a 26.9% HardHit% and 84.8% Exit Velocity for his career. But Raley soars past even those impressive bars. Since 2020 when Raley returned to Major League Baseball, there has been nobody better in the game at suppressing hard contact. Brooks Raley’s 21.4% HardHit% and 82.6 MPH Exit Velocity both rank comfortably 1st among all pitchers.
What else does Brooks Raley do at a top level? He strikes guys out. Since his return to the states, he’s got a K-rate of 31.8% which ranks him 29th over these past two seasons. That alone ranks him above some impressive K artists like Pete Fairbanks (30.6%), Diego Castillo (30.4%), Chad Green (31.6%), and Kenley Jansen (31.3%).
Furthermore, he limits free bases. His K-BB% of 24.2% ranks 24th best in baseball, ahead of James Karinchak (24.1%), breakout Red Sox reliever Garrett Whitlock (21.5%), and Rookie of the Year candidate Emmanuel Clase (20.8%).
Brooks Raley has also been utter death to left-handed hitters. Since 2020, the top 3 pitchers in baseball vs LHH by FIP
- 1st Aaron Bummer, CWS — 0.42 FIP
- T-2nd Collin McHugh, TBR — 1.38 FIP
- T-2nd Brooks Raley, HOU — 1.38 FIP
To sum up the question “what does Brooks Raley do well?”: He strikes guys out, he doesn’t walk many, he gives up almost no hard contact, and he gets every lefty out.
Okay, so if this guy is this good at all of this, why the heck is he not a household name? Well, he does have some flaws. His ERA is distinctly not pretty, sitting in the high 4s in both 2020 and 2021. But reliever ERA is silly and not very descriptive of reality. The flaws that are his limiting factor are being stung by the longball, and right-handed hitters have feasted.
Observe both of those things happening together in this just bonkers bomb from Dylan Moore
Dylan Moore - Seattle Mariners (10) Grand Slam. pic.twitter.com/MKbL1ywGro— MLB HR Tracker (@hr_mlb) July 27, 2021
Since his return stateside, Raley has given up 9 HRs total. 8 of those were against right-handed hitters.
A move from Houston and the Crawford Box short porch in LF to the spacious and elite defensive outfield of Tropicana Field should help. But what I’m excited about is that Raley seems like a tinkerer. He spoke about coming to Tampa Bay because of their pitching program, and because of their coaches.
Because of Raley’s past starting experience in the KBO, he has utilized as many as 6 pitches rather than the 2-3 max most relievers employ. That gives some raw tools for Kyle Snyder and Raley to work together and potentially find a way to better neutralize the strengths righties have had off of him.
The Cutter in particular might be the key. In 2020, Raley’s Cutter was a weapon that got whiffs 32.1% of the time, and batters were able to muster a meager .262 wOBA against with just .324 SLG. In 2021 that Cutter did not fare nearly as well, with the wOBA rising to .389, the Whiff rate dropping under 30%, and SLG rising to a whopping .522. It went from his way to limit damage against righties to being the damage.
Not a fixer-upper
Raley doesn’t need to be rebuilt. He already does key things at an elite level. He’s already a very good and useful reliever.
However, what Raley has mentioned about one of the top reasons for choosing the Rays in free agency is the chance to ascend to another level. It is not about changing what Brooks Raley does. It’s about enhancing what he does well, and getting him to be the best Brooks he can be.
Raley has challenged himself, from traveling overseas and learning that league and ways to be a durable multi-pitch arsenal starting pitcher. He picked up more skills through the Astros, boosting spin and movement pitch usage. And now he seeks out more knowledge with Kyle Snyder and the Rays.
If there’s no breakthrough, the Rays still got an extremely talented reliever who will be an asset to the Stable, slotting in as top left-handed reliever and causing Rafael Devers nightmares. If Snyder and Raley can unlock a weapon vs righties, we might be looking at the next Rays multi-inning relief ace.