Despite adjustments, Ray stung by familiar foes

July 30th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Robbie Ray is not afraid to make adjustments, and his ability to do so has led to a lot of recent success, except against one team: the Astros, who beat the Mariners, 11-1, on Friday night at Minute Maid Park. 

“They were all over Robbie again,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We couldn’t get [the Astros] off anything, and Robbie couldn’t get a lot of swings-and-miss going. You’re going to have these games.”

Ray understands that baseball is a game in which things are constantly changing and if you don’t adjust, problems will arise. It is why the lefty has constantly been making adjustments since he broke into the Majors, such as going from a diverse repertoire that featured a two- and four-seam fastball simultaneously to a two-pitch (slider and four-seam) specialist.

Those changes elevated Ray’s game and led to his 2021 AL Cy Young Award-winning season in which he led the league in ERA, strikeouts and WHIP with the Blue Jays. The success has carried over to this year, especially in June, when he recorded a 2.19 ERA and held opponents to a .191 average in six starts.

Ray has had success against many teams, but one team does have his number -- the Astros. In eight career starts against Houston entering Friday, the Astros' batting average (.323), on-base percentage (.390), slugging percentage (.601) and OPS (.991) versus Ray were each of his highest allowed to a single opponent in his career.

The Mariners boosted their rotation by trading for Luis Castillo, which was announced during the game, but the division-rival Astros are an opponent that Ray will need to solve, as he is in his first year of a five-year, $115 million contract.

The American League West leaders have troubled Ray all season long, starting with his first start against them on June 6. The Astros tagged him for three solo homers in the first two innings.

Ray’s problem in that start was his location, as the pitches were either right over the heart of the plate or nowhere near it, which forced him to adjust. He brought back a pitch that he abandoned in 2016 mid-game: a two-seam fastball (also classified as a sinker).

The change brought relative success, as the Astros went 3-for-8 against it with three singles that game, which led him to use it more in his next start against them on July 24. The results were not the same, as Ray went just three innings at T-Mobile Park, his shortest start since 2019, and surrendered a career-high-tying 10 hits and a season-high-tying six runs.

Ray tried his luck with his two-seam fastball again on Friday and the results got worse, as his outing was even shorter than his previous start, allowing four runs on five hits with four walks and three strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings.

The issues for Ray began early, as the Astros were making contact on the swing-and-miss specialist, who entered Friday with a 32.5 percent whiff rate, the fifth-best mark in the Majors. 

The lack of whiffs led to long at-bats early -- Yordan Alvarez worked a nine-pitch at-bat, followed by Alex Bregman’s 10 pitch at-bat in the first inning -- and brought Ray’s pitch count up early as he was already at 51 pitches by the second inning. He finished the night having thrown 84 pitches.

Ray tried to mix his pitches to induce whiffs and get out of at-bats quicker, but the Astros batters were aggressive and made good swings on his pitches, even on his two-seam fastball.

“I felt like my stuff was really good,” Ray said. “One bad pitch to [Aledmys] Díaz [that resulted in a homer] but other than that, I feel like I made some good pitches. I got some ground balls, they just found some holes.”

It may be Ray’s final time facing them in the regular season, but there's a chance he could face them in October if the Mariners are able to snap their 20-year postseason drought. And he will certainly face them again over the next four years, so more adjustments will need to be made sooner rather than later, especially for a team that has playoff aspirations that were made clear with the trade for Castillo.