Ray looks for rhythm in '21 after tough run

November 10th, 2020

TORONTO -- The Blue Jays wasted no time in bringing back Robbie Ray on a one-year deal, with mutual interest from the moment free agency opened. A few months from now, Toronto will start to learn which version of Ray it has added.

Behind door No. 1 is the 2017 Ray, an All-Star who went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA for the D-backs, establishing himself as one of the games brightest young left-handed starters. Behind door No. 2, of course, is the '20 Ray, with a 6.62 ERA and serious control issues.

Reality tends to live somewhere in the middle, but the Blue Jays wouldn't have made this move -- especially this early in the process with an $8 million price tag -- without believing in Ray’s talent. Still just 29 years old and having shown some encouraging signs through September after being acquired at the Trade Deadline, Toronto is betting on that upside.

“The power, the strikeouts, the 80 [grade] slider, he has shown the ability to dominate,” said general manager Ross Atkins. “There have been times where he has been dominant, and last year was a tough run, especially the first half for him. It felt like he had gotten back closer to that 2017-18 performer towards the end of the season and was very effective in his time with us.”

Ray’s quest to return to that 2017 form isn’t complicated. He’s tinkered with his delivery recently, which didn’t bring the results he’d hoped for, so this is all about getting back to his version of “normal.” Another season with pitching coach Pete Walker is the perfect place to do that.

When the Blue Jays acquire a pitcher, Walker’s approach is to first let them do their own thing. Instead of micromanaging new arms with a barrage of new ideas from Day 1, Toronto sees what works and doesn’t work for a pitcher, then slowly starts to develop a plan together. What Atkins saw from Ray in September was a pitcher who was more in rhythm, which resulted in better timing and a more consistent arm path.

Rhythm is the key word here, which brings us back to one of Ray’s first starts with the Blue Jays, where his fastball velocity reached as high as 97.2 mph, well above his 2020 average of 93.9 mph.

“The biggest thing is that I felt athletic on the mound,” Ray said after that start. “I felt like I was getting to my load, getting to my back side and driving down the mound like I normally do. That was the biggest thing.”

It’s a vague term at times, for a pitcher to be “athletic,” but it’s something that the Blue Jays actively target. Even when the club’s front office discusses prospects who are 17 years old, an “athletic delivery” is something they absolutely covet and work to develop.

In simpler terms, an athletic delivery is built with free, easy and natural movements instead of being bogged down by rigid mechanics and hitches. You can see the same in hitters, too. While some hitters chased launch angle too aggressively and altered their mechanics, others, like Bo Bichette, stayed “athletic” and learned how to adjust their own natural movements. If Ray can get back to that comfortable, repeatable delivery, that’s the sweet spot.

Ray will never have elite control, and that’s just fine. He needs to improve from 2020, though, when he led MLB with 45 walks. Only three other pitchers had 30 or more.

As long as he’s in the same area code as the zone, though, Ray has the potential to dominate. His career strikeout rate of 11.1 per nine innings is exceptional among starting pitchers, and when his slider is clicking, it’s a nearly unhittable pitch. To set that up, though, Ray needs to establish the fastball.

“When my fastball command is off, I’m not able to use my breaking balls to effectively get guys out,” Ray said. “For me, it’s about getting that fastball under control and finding whatever it is in my delivery to have that consistency, to have that fastball command. The other pitches will be fine. They are what they are, they’re strikeout pitches.”

Back in 2017, Ray’s pitch mix featured more fastballs than it has in recent seasons, so he could really lean on that pitch if the control returns. He’s also been relatively durable through his career, averaging just over 152 innings over his five full seasons from '15-19.

Ray is expected to pitch towards the back of the rotation with ace Hyun Jin Ryu and Nate Pearson near the top. The Blue Jays still hope to make a significant rotation addition to the top end of their staff, but if they get the version of Ray that they’re hoping for, the back end could be very strong.