On June 9th, 2016, Corey Ray was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers with the 5th overall pick in the first-year MLB player draft amidst his senior year at the University of Louisville. His final slash line during his final collegiate season was a respectable .310/.388/.545 with 15 HR in 258 ABs. He was regarded as a plus baserunner and plus defender on top of his offensive ability to drive the ball to all fields with power. It seemed as if the Brewers would potentially have a quality MLB-worthy first-rounder for the first time since Ryan Braun was drafted in 2005 (Jeremy Jefrres was drafted in the first round in ’06, but he didn’t pan out until much later and after he was acquired again through trade, so he doesn’t count).
However, after his fourth year of spending time in the minor leagues, his cumulative MiLB slash line is .235/.311/.406 with 47 HRs in very hitter-friendly environments. The Triple-A level – of which Ray was primarily situated in 2019 – saw an especially massive offensive boost when the “juiced” MLB baseballs were used this past season. Despite the juiced balls, Ray slashed .188/.261/.329 with 7 HR and a 38.7% K-rate in 230 PA.
So, a question remains: why the immense struggle in extremely hitter-friendly environments after a successful “breakout” (.239/.323/.477 with 27 HR) in 2018? Furthermore, after being added to the 40-man, can he provide value to the Brewers at the major league level? Well, let’s try to answer those burning questions.
It’s difficult to have any sustained success at any level with a 38.7% K-rate, an 8.7% BB-rate, and no power. For example, the only player with a higher K% at the major league level was Chris Davis at 39.5%, though he still had an above-average 11.1% BB-rate. His poor offensive performance is coupled with an outrageously high 35% IFH-rate (infield hit rate), with MLB average sitting at 6.5%. While that may showcase his reportedly elite speed, it further accentuates his poor offensive performance given that over a third of his batted-ball production was relegated to the infield.
And it’s not that he was cheated when he made contact. He still had a .283 BABIP, which wasn’t terribly far from the MLB average of .298. His splits didn’t help him much either, as he slashed .182/.255/.372 against righties and .203/.277/.220 against lefties. A quick note about Ray’s batted ball profile that is interesting: in a writeup of Corey Ray (found here) in February of 2019, Gerard Gilberto states:
Ray isn’t changing his approach to a modern view that puts a premium on increasing launch angle. This way of thinking falls in line with [Brewers Farm Director at the time and now Vice President of Minor League Operations, Tom] Flanagan’s philosophy that developing power is simply a byproduct of strong bat-to-ball skills.
It is hard to say whether or not Ray actually needs to increase his average launch angle, considering his FB-rate of 33.3% at the Triple-A level was only a smidge below the MLB average of 35.7%. Furthermore, there is limited data and footage of Ray throughout his minor league tenure. It just seems like such a traditional and old-school statement that gives flippant regard for what could be an area of improvement in favor of natural, progressive development that may or may not occur. The statement also implies increasing launch angle – and/or fly ball rate – is not a “byproduct of strong bat-to-ball skills,” but, rather, a mere fad. How odd.
Regardless, with all the above factors considered, let’s try to consult video footage on Ray to see if the eye test shows anything telling since MiLB Statcast data isn’t available. Below are three videos: one from his final season at Louisville, one from the 2017 Arizona Fall Lague, and one video of all his home runs from his breakout 2018 season:
After watching every swing and every take in each of these videos, some subjective and inconclusive yet helpful observations can be made.
Ray’s wheelhouse seems to be closer towards the bottom of the zone, and he seems to struggle with balls above the belt, though the videos provided are small sample sizes. With increased fastball velocities and spin rates, pitching at the top of the zone has become easier and more lucrative, leaving Ray at a distinct disadvantage. Furthermore, Ray would probably benefit from ditching the all-fields approach and using every inch of his 6′, 195lb frame to belt homers over the right-field wall. That may not actually increase his production, but it would be a curious experiment that would eliminate a lot of 6-3 grounders that the videos the first two videos showcase.
Another setback in Ray’s 2019 season was that he missed a total of ten weeks due to a right middle finger injury. He had been placed on the IL for three weeks at the beginning of the season for the injury. After coming back and trying to play through it, Ray was sent back on the IL for another seven weeks. Ray’s production did not improve when healthy though, slashing .198/.263/.368 in 28 games after the minor league all-star break.
A promising outlook for Ray would be retaining health in 2020 and mimicking his breakout potential that he showed in 2018. However, his ’18 breakout resulted in a good-but-not-spectacular .355 wOBA in a hitter-friendly environment. He can steal bases at a good rate – 37 stolen bases in 44 tries, an impressive 84.1% success rate – and play an above-average center field.
In summation, Ray, pending a bounceback year, is looking to be a solid replacement-level bat off the bench at best. He certainly has the potential for more, but he still has too much to prove before he can regain his status of top prospect and get the chance to produce at the major league level. Nevertheless, Ray is entering his age-25 season and is running out of time to take advantage of his prime-talent years.