Brooks Raley: From Mediocre Draft Pick to Sabermetric Stud
Brooks Raley is a guy who turned his career around, going from a failed big leaguer to one of the best RPs in baseball with a cult following from the sabermetrics community. Bullpens of today are filled with guys who can blow it past batters, throwing fastballs in the upper 90s and sliders in the low 90s. Raley is not one of those guys. He sits around 89-90 mph with his sinker and does not go much past that. Despite this, he is still a very effective reliever and truly a unicorn in baseball today.
Raley was drafted in 2009 by the Cubs in the 6th round as a starter out of Texas A&M. He was a soft throwing lefty and was seen as a “safe bet” to be in the majors one day. His fastball sat in the high 80s but had a lot of movement on it, which made him an attractive option. Raley’s off-speed was highlighted by a slider in the upper 70s, which was aided by a deceptive delivery. He also tossed an average changeup and curveball and featured decent control. That left Brooks to be seen as someone who “tops out as a No. 3 starter,” according to MLB.com.
Through Raley's first 2 full seasons in the minors, he was mediocre, posting ERAs of 3.50 and 4.22 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. In both of these seasons, Raley did an excellent job keeping the ball in the park, as he posted far above-average HR/9 numbers (0.6 and 1.1 in the respective seasons). The concern was his lack of strikeouts and his surplus of walks; he posted nearly 2/1 K/BB rate in both of these seasons. However, he had still done enough to earn a trip to AAA in 2012, where he was solid. Brooks put up a 3.62 ERA across 82.0 IP. That stint in AAA saw him slightly increase his strikeouts, but his walk numbers remained disappointingly high. He continued to keep his amazing home run prevention numbers down, which was enough for Raley to be promoted to the Cubs in August of 2012.
Brooks Raley made his MLB debut on August 7th, 2012 at the age of 24. He picked up a start for the 61-win Cubs against a mediocre Padres team. Unfortunately, Brooks was not even mediocre on the mound. He went just 4.0 innings and gave up 7 ER on 8 hits with 3 BBs and 4 strikeouts. Things didn’t get any better in 2012 after that, either.
Brooks Raley's 2012 Stats:
Raley did not have very high expectations coming into the big leagues, but he was still expected to be a decent back-end-of-the-rotation arm. As one can see, that did not work out for him. His per 9s were awful, I know it is just a 5-game sample size, but his K/BB of 1.5/1 is disgustingly bad. The one thing Raley had been good at in the minors was home run prevention. However, he got to the big leagues and gave up at least 1 HR in every start and had 2 games with multiple home runs given up. His best start in this stretch was a 5 IP, 2 ER outing where he still almost had a 1/1 K/BB ratio. However, there was some promise with Raley that would point to his future success. In the first 2 innings of each of his starts, he gave up just 1 ER. It seemed as though after 6-8 batters, Raley started to get hit more and more and was unable to get out of jams. But his success through six outs pointed to the fact that he could be an effective reliever.
Raley started the 2013 season in AAA and continued to put out mediocre performances. He posted a 4.46 ERA across 141.1 IP, with continued poor K/BB rates and elite HR prevention. Raley got a quick call-up in July and made only one appearance, pitching 4.1 innings out of the bullpen in a blowout game. In this 4.1 IP, he gave up 2 runs on 3 hits with 3 BBs and just one strikeout. He got sent right back down to AAA after this appearance and did not get called back until September, after which he spent a full month in the majors as a reliever.
Brooks Raley's 2013 Stats:
5.14 ERA 5.05 FIP
Raley continued to struggle out of the bullpen for the Cubs, walking way too many batters. This would happen to be Raley's last chance in the big leagues for a long time. A 26-year-old heading into 2014, Raley was seen as pretty much done as a major leaguer. He was placed on waivers by the Cubs before the 2014 season, picked up by the Twins, and went to their AAA team. Brooks was surprisingly solid for the Twins’ AAA team, as he posted a 3.68 ERA across 14.2 IP. He was still placed on waivers by the Twins, though, and was picked up by the Angels. Raley was horrendous on LA’s AAA squad, pitching to the tune of a 10.57 ERA in 23 IP. After this dreadful performance, he was released by the Angels and did not get picked back up by any major league. This resulted in Raley heading to Korea, where he would continue his baseball career from 2014-2019.
From 2014-2019 Raley reinvented himself in the KBO and perfected his craft. Raley went back to being a starter, but he fixed his big issues: his K/9 and BB/9. By 2019, Raley had fully turned himself around, and the now 32-year-old had new life in his baseball career.
Brooks Raley's 2019 KBO Stats:
Raley was able to get his K/9 up and keep his elite HR rate while doing an amazing job at preventing runs. These great numbers and continued success in KBO gave Raley another chance in the MLB. Brooks signed with the Reds before the 2020 season. Despite all the odds against him, Brooks Raley fought his way back to the majors. But his success story was not quite done.
Brooks Raley’s Reds tenure did last too long. He tossed just 4 innings for Cincinnati in 2020 before getting traded to the Astros. Brooks finished his 2020 season with a 4.95 ERA across 20 IP, all out of the bullpen; however, one big thing had changed since his last stint in the majors - the emergence of advanced baseball metrics, aka sabermetrics. After this 2020 season, Raley gained a loyal fanbase from the sabermetrics community. After analytically-inclined fans caught a look at his Baseball Savant percentile rankings, they were sold on Raley.
Brooks Raley's 2020 Baseball Savant Percentile Rankings:
100th percentile Avg Exit Velo
99th percentile HardHit%
83rd percentile xERA
95th percentile xBA
81st percentile xSLG
87th percentile K%
69th percentile BB%
79th percentile Whiff%
82nd percentile Chase Rate
94th percentile Fastball Spin
Looking at these numbers, one would think that Raley was one of the best pitchers in baseball. However, he posted a 4.95 ERA in 20 innings. What hurt Raley's ERA was 1 horrendous outing that inflated his ERA for the rest of the short season. These numbers gave everyone a glimpse into a promising future for Raley. Diving deeper into his advanced metrics, Brooks did an amazing job of keeping people from hitting the ball hard. That led to him putting up very good expected stats. His 40.4% GB rate also contributed to the great expected stats. Raley's amazing spin rates also led to a lot of people noticing him. He averaged nearly 2900 RPM on his slider, which is downright disgusting. Brooks’ cutter, a pitch that he did not have during his first big league stint, was his best pitch in 2020, with an RPM of around 2550. That spin rate is amazing for a cutter. These advanced metrics were able to give value to a player that, based on the baseline numbers, did not have much. 2021 was expected to be a big one for Raley, as it would be his first full season in the majors and his first full season as a reliever.
Brooks Raley put together another solid season in 2021 by the advanced metrics. Once again, however, his ERA did not reflect his season. He posted a 4.78 ERA across 58 appearances. The impressive part of Raley’s 2021 season was how low his 3.27 FIP was compared to his 4.78 ERA. This shows that Raley was very good at striking out batters and prevented enough HRs and walks. The advanced metrics came back to save Raley again this year, as his value continued to rise despite his high ERA.
Brooks Raley's 2021 Baseball Savant Percentile Rankings:
100th percentile Avg Exit Velo
100th percentile HardHit%
63rd percentile xERA
64th percentile xBA 60th percentile xSLG
92nd percentile K%
57th percentile BB%
87th percentile Whiff%
69th percentile Chase Rate
Raley’s percentile rankings were not as amazing as his 2020 season, but he was still extremely solid for having a below-average ERA. Looking into his 2021 numbers more, Brooks continued his dominance by not giving up much hard contact. His GB% even went up to 47%, which helped continue his success. His spin rates also went up, and he started using his slider at the same clip as his cutter, which led to his slider posting a really good run value. Raley was a very good relief pitcher that the average fan had no idea about. The Rays decided to scoop him up from the free agent market, giving him a 2-year, $10 million deal before the 2022 season. Fortunately for Tampa, Raley was on the verge of an official coming-out party. His baseline stats finally caught up with his insane advanced metrics this past season.
Brooks Raley's 2022 Baseline Stats:
2.68 ERA 2.74 FIP
Brooks Raley's 2022 Baseball Savant Percentile Rankings:
85th percentile Avg Exit Velo
98th percentile HardHit%
88th percentile xERA
83rd percentile xBA
94th percentile xSLG
99th percentile Barrel%
80th percentile K%
92nd percentile Chase%
67th percentile Whiff%
63rd percentile BB%
Brooks Raley was downright disgusting in 2022. Both his baseline and advanced stats were amazing in 2022 which led to Raley finally being recognized as one of the best relievers in baseball. His improvement in expected stats came from his ability to allow weak contact, and he was also getting a lot more chases and whiffs. Raley cut his cutter usage down, which increased the pitch's run value. His slider and sinker increased in usage, leading to more weak contact. He averaged 1.4 barrels/PA, down almost 3 barrels from the previous season.
Raley is a prime example of someone who would not have kept his job without advanced analytics revealing his previously unseen value. He was able to transform his career from a major league failure to a legit top-10 RP in all of baseball.
"Brooks Raley" via Bryan Green is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0