There are a few options for teams playing at the top of the starting pitching market to choose from this winter. Max Scherzer should land the highest average annual value, but his age (37) might cap the length of those offers at three years. Carlos Rodón had an utterly dominant platform year, but he dealt with some shoulder concerns at the end of the season that could be a red flag for teams. Marcus Stroman has a long track record of durability, great strike-throwing and elite ground-ball numbers, but he doesn’t miss bats the way most teams covet from their top-of-the-rotation arms.
It’s not out of the question someone from that trio could land a deal that surpasses general expectations. It seems more likely, though, that Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray will ultimately wind up battling one another for the highest overall guarantee among pitchers. Let’s dig into each player’s profile to determine which one teams should have at the top of their preference lists.
For the first few seasons of his career, Gausman occasionally flashed the potential that had made him a top five draft pick. But he also had bouts of inconsistency and struggled badly enough in 2019 to be waived by the Braves and then non-tendered by the Reds, who had plucked him off the wire.
Since signing with the Giants over the 2019-20 offseason, Gausman has taken his game to a new level. His 3.62 ERA in 2020 was among the best marks of his career, and even that belied elite strikeout and walk numbers. That came in only twelve outings because of the shortened season, and Gausman accepted a qualifying offer last winter in hopes of proving he’d markedly improved over a bigger body of work.
Betting on himself is in position to pay off handsomely. Gausman stayed healthy all year, working 192 innings of 2.81 ERA ball. He didn’t quite sustain his 2020 strikeout rate, but this past season’s 29.3% mark still checked in fourteenth among the 129 hurlers with 100+ innings. Gausman’s 15.3% swinging strike rate was even more impressive, placing fifth among that same group. He’ll now market back-to-back great years of performance. He has missed bats at an elite level for the past few seasons, and the righty has always had plus control.
There’s not a whole lot to nitpick about Gausman’s numbers, although it’s at least worth considering that he succeeds somewhat non-traditionally. He’s tinkered with different breaking pitches but has never found an effective one. Instead, he leaned more heavily than ever on his four-seam fastball (52.7%) and splitter (35.3%) in 2021. Per Statcast, Gausman was one of just fourteen starting pitchers to use a split more than 10% of the time. Most teams are probably willing to look past that unconventional repertoire, since Gausman now has a multi-year track record of great play. Still, it’s a lot more common to see aces with a Ray-like arsenal (primarily fastball-slider), and that could be a factor for some clubs.
Great as Gausman was this past season, Ray was arguably better. The southpaw posted a 2.84 ERA over 193 1/3 frames. He thrived in a division that sent three other teams to the playoffs and split his year between a trio of home ballparks, all of which seemed to be favorable for hitters. Gausman spent the year in the National League, where he’d get to face the opposing pitcher on most nights; Ray wasn’t as fortunate pitching in the American League. And while Gausman turns 31 in January, Ray will pitch almost all of next season at age-30 before turning 31 in October.
Ray’s underlying metrics were similarly elite. He fanned 32.1% of opponents, the sixth-highest mark leaguewide. Ray checked in one spot ahead of Gausman on the swinging strike rate leaderboard, with his 15.5% mark ranking fourth. When batters did make contact against Ray, they were more successful than they’d been hitting against Gausman. Ray was more prone to hard contact and fly balls, and he indeed gave up more home runs. But on a batter-by-batter basis, they were similarly effective at preventing baserunners. Opponents hit .210/.267/.401 against Ray; they batted .210/.264/.345 off Gausman.
Of course, teams will take the players’ pre-2021 bodies of work into account when making a decision of this magnitude. For Gausman versus Ray, that only makes things more complicated. While Gausman was great in 2020, Ray had an awful season. He walked 17.9% of batters faced that year, posting a 6.62 ERA in 51 2/3 innings. It was a nightmarish year, but it’s also easy to see teams writing that off as a fluke. Not only was 2020 a season of inherent small samples, Ray made an obvious alteration to his throwing mechanics entering that year. Clearly, Ray’s pre-2020 adjustments negatively impacted his control, but he returned to his original throwing motion in 2021, as he explained to Kaitlyn McGrath of the Athletic last month.
While Gausman’s 2020 was unquestionably better than Ray’s, the latter had the better career track record going into that year. He was an All-Star in 2017, a year in which he finished seventh in NL Cy Young Award voting. He had a top ten strikeout rate (minimum 100 innings) every season from 2016-19. So while Ray was one of the worst pitchers in baseball in 2020, he certainly hasn’t come out of nowhere.
To recap: Gausman and Ray had similarly elite platform seasons. The former was also great in 2020, while the latter had a terrible season. Ray was far better before 2020, though, and he’s nearly a full year younger. Now, we’ll turn it over to the readership. Whom should teams looking to make a splash in free agency this winter prefer: Gausman or Ray?
(poll link for app users)