'It's just huge': Ray continues reinvention

May 23rd, 2021

Back on April 18, took the mound in Kansas City and, over the course of an hour, proceeded to walk six batters. That feels like a decade ago now.

Ray has been a different pitcher since then, not just breaking from one ugly outing, but breaking from the one fatal flaw that’s held him back any time he’s struggled in his career. Over 39 2/3 innings since the final walk he issued to the Royals, he’s handed out just one free pass. That’s right, one.

He did it again in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Rays, blazing through seven innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts and -- you guessed it -- zero walks. Ray entered the season as the ultimate wild card, still capable of the incredible form he showed back in 2017 with a 2.89 ERA and All-Star appearance, but he was coming off a season in which he led baseball in walks, and it wasn’t particularly close.

Somehow, someway, Ray has landed in the middle and become the unexpected: a steady, reliable source of quality outings. Hot streaks will come and go, but given how drastically different Ray’s control has been as of late, he’s giving the Blue Jays enough reason to believe that this is a new version of him that can be carried forward in some way, not just a flash in the pan.

“It’s just huge,” Ray said. “I think I’ve said this before, that if I get 2-0, 3-1, 3-0 on a guy, now I feel like I’m still in the at-bat. Before, it might have just been a four-pitch walk. I feel like I still have the command. I can refocus, get back in the zone and get an out.”

There’s been no dramatic overhaul for Ray. He hasn’t added a new pitch or started throwing right-handed. What he has done, though, is align some of his key numbers with that 2017 season. His fastball usage was 57.8% entering Saturday, right in line with 56.5% from 2017, and his average fastball velocity (95.2 mph) is the highest of his career. The next highest, of course, being 2017.

“In 2017, I did it before,” Ray said. “I feel like this year is a little bit different. I feel like I have more weapons to use, whereas in the past, for example, my slider has always been the putaway pitch or the curveball has been. I feel like I have four pitches that I can throw in the zone and get outs with.”

Ray has only been able to bring his fastball usage back up to this level because it’s working. His whiff rate on the pitch is the highest of his career, and behind that fastball, his slider, curveball and changeup have all fallen into a more comfortable place in his arsenal. When this turnaround started, Ray said he felt that he’d “found something” in his delivery that was adding some extra life to his fastball, but it’s important to note that he’s improving the tools he has, not rebuilding with new ones.

Ray’s raw stuff has always had high-end potential. Now, after it got off the leash and ran down the road on him in 2020, Ray has figured out a way to control it again.

The one tradeoff to living in the zone, however, has been home runs. The lone run that scored on Ray on Saturday was a solo shot from Mike Zunino, and he’s now allowed eight homers over 24 2/3 innings in his last four starts. These are more manageable as solo home runs, without a couple of walks on base to turn them into three-run shots, but avoiding the big blow is the next step for Ray as he works to sustain this and stay one adjustment ahead.

Ray’s outing typically would have earned him a win, but Shane McClanahan pitched very well for the Rays, too, and Toronto’s lineup was held to just four hits against him and six altogether. Anthony Castro gave up an RBI single to Manuel Margot in the eighth, which put the Blue Jays behind and wasted a fine night from the starter.

“When you’re playing a hot team, you’ve got to play your A-game,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “It hasn’t been our A-game. That’s just it. When you get a chance to score, you have to score. When you call a pitch out, you have to make the right pitch to get the guy. It’s little things. When a team is hot like that, you’ve got to play your A-game. We just haven’t played our A-game.”

One player did, though, and that’s Ray. He threw 109 pitches after throwing 112 in his last outing, and says he feels there could be room for even more. Now that he’s found the sweet spot, the Blue Jays just need more of the same from Ray, who’s flipped the script on his pitching identity.