'Incredible': Breaking down Ray's dominance

August 31st, 2021

TORONTO -- The rise of has been the unexpected story of the season for the Blue Jays, as he went from the league leader in walks to a legitimate American League Cy Young Award candidate.

Ray always had the talent, which he flashed as an All-Star for Arizona in 2017, but he’s never been this consistent. The left-hander is becoming a lock to pitch seven innings, giving his club not only a chance to win each time he’s on the mound, but a clear advantage. Ray is Toronto's ace in 2021, and if you had that in your office pool before the season, you’d be the only one.

The Blue Jays clearly saw something they believed in when they brought Ray back early in free agency on a one-year, $8 million deal last November. It was a curious move after they publicly stated that “strike throwing” would be a top priority, but Ray has pulled off one of the biggest turnarounds in recent Toronto memory.

With a 2.71 ERA through 159 1/3 innings, Ray is one of the main reasons the Blue Jays have a chance in the AL Wild Card race this September. Yes, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien have starred, but if Ray were pitching to a 4.25 ERA -- an entirely reasonable expectation entering the season -- Toronto would be out of this already. If the Blue Jays are able to reach the postseason, there’s an easy argument to be made that Ray should get Game 1, too, even ahead of Hyun Jin Ryu and José Berríos.

Here’s a look at what has made Ray special, and how it sets him up for awards season:

The strikeout king

• After reaching 1,241 strikeouts on Monday, Ray set a new MLB record for the most K's by a pitcher through the first 1,000 innings of their career. The previous record belonged to Yu Darvish, with 1,222.

• By crossing the 1,000-inning threshold, Ray also became the all-time MLB leader in strikeouts per nine innings, at 11.1774 K/9. He’s trailed by some of the greats in Chris Sale (11.0954), Yu Darvish (11.0762), Jacob deGrom (10.7358), Max Scherzer (10.7196) and Randy Johnson (10.6098).

• Ray became just the fourth pitcher in Blue Jays history to strike out 200 batters in a single season. AJ Burnett has done it once (2008), and Roy Halladay (2008, 2009) and Roger Clemens (1997, 1998) have done it twice. And while The Rocket’s highs of 292 and 271 are lofty goals, Ray could easily surpass Burnett’s mark of 231 for the third most in club history.

The AL Cy Young Award race

• Ray's 2.71 ERA ranks second in the American League, trailing only Lance Lynn (2.59) of the White Sox.

• When it comes to WAR, Ray (3.4) is tied for fourth in the AL with Frankie Montas of the A’s, trailing only the White Sox Dylan Cease (3.5), the Red Sox's Nathan Eovaldi (4.6) and the Yankees' Gerrit Cole (4.7).

A long string of no-decisions have robbed Ray of some wins that he deserved, so it’s likely he will only finish this season with 12 or 13 wins after entering September with 10. His ERA will shine -- and Ray holds the AL lead in strikeouts -- so when it comes to the nice, round numbers, he’s putting himself in a fine spot. Ray still ranks solidly when it comes to FIP (sixth) and xFIP (second) in the AL, too. If there’s been one fault in his season, it’s the 25 home runs he’s allowed that tie him for sixth in the AL, but he’s done an incredible job at limiting the damage otherwise.

They said it

General manager Ross Atkins
“The strike throwing is the clear [improvement], and he’s obviously held his stuff over the course of this year. The slider seems to be getting better and better. I’m so impressed by how he makes adjustments, even late in his last start when he went to that slider late in the game and was obviously very effective with it. Getting on the plate has been the biggest adjustment and that was a concerted adjustment from our scouting staff and Pete Walker, but he’s taken it and run with it. The strike throwing is now at a level that has made him one of the best pitchers in the game.”

Pitching coach Pete Walker
“He’s a rock. He’s a model of consistency. He has a routine he doesn’t want to deviate from. He wants to throw his sides on a particular day and pitch every fifth day. He’s really a pitching coach’s dream, because he wants the ball and his side sessions are exactly the same every time. I try to have him take a breather every once in a while, but he wants to stick to his plan. It’s fun to watch. He’s 100% in his bullpens. He’s grunting down there in the bullpen, too.” (July 25)

Outfielder George Springer
“It’s been incredible. He’s been our horse. The stuff that he’s been able to do … He has a presence about him that kind of oozes onto us a bit. He’s just been outstanding the last month or so, but [also] all year.”

Left-hander Robbie Ray
“It was the trust they had with me from the get-go, from Spring Training. I built a really good relationship with Pete Walker, with [bullpen coach] Matt Buschmann, with Charlie [Montoyo]. I feel like the trust is there, and it’s only grown. Charlie has allowed me to go deeper into games and maybe push the envelope a little bit sometimes. In those situations, I feel like I’ve earned that trust. I’ve made it to where he can trust me in those situations.”