Robbie Ray was absolutely dominant in Wednesday afternoon’s game against the AL-leading Tampa Bay Rays. Facing the major league leaders in runs scored for a fifth time this season, he somehow put together his best performance against them yet, registering 13 strikeouts over seven innings with just four hits, no walks, and only one run scored, dropping his season ERA against Tampa to 1.85.
There is Cy Young buzz all around him at the moment, and for very good reason. And since I did a post like this after Alek Manoah’s exceptional performance on Monday night, I figure it’s only fair to do the same for Ray — who once again was absolutely electric. So let’s go look at some K’s!
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The superlatives are easy to come by for Robbie Ray at this point. That tends to happen when you put together a campaign where you lead the American League in ERA (2.64), strikeouts (233), innings pitched (177 1/3), and have only gotten better as the season has progressed (Ray's ERA in the first half was 3.13; he's had an ERA of 2.00 over 76 2/3 innings since the All-Star break).
MLB.com’s Jason Catania looked at Ray’s Cy Young case before Wednesday’s dominant outing against the Rays, and noted that his 11.4% drop in walk rate from last year to this was the second highest one-season turnaround from any pitcher since 2000. With seven more innings of walk-free ball on Wednesday, however, Ray vaulted into first place on that list with an 11.6% drop.
That stat tells you much the story of how Ray has been so dominant this year. The number that I’d say tells much of the rest is another one that has dropped: his curveball usage went from 16.4% in 2020 (with similar numbers in the previous four seasons) to just 6.5% this year.
The final piece, I think, is a number that’s increased: his velocity. Ray’s fastball is averaging 94.9 mph so far this season, which is the highest mark of his career. Just as important, I think, his slider has also gained velocity — a process that started last year, particularly after he moved to the Blue Jays. In 2019 his slider averaged 84.2 mph, whereas this season he’s throwing it at 88.7 mph on average. It also has quite a bit less downward movement than before.
No longer is the slider necessarily a pitch he’s using to try to get batters to chase, he’s more frequently hucking them in the zone — or near to it — with much less separation from the velocity of his fastball, making it much harder for batters to discern just what the hell pitch is coming. In other words, Ray, to use a phrase often uttered by Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker, seems better than ever to trust his stuff.
That, of course, is easier to do when you’re commanding better. And having Ray throw a firmer slider with less break and ton of fastballs — he throws one or the other nearly 90% of the time — is definitely a way to improve on that front than fussing about too much with the rest of his arsenal.
In a piece at Sportsnet on Wednesday night, Arden Zwelling made similar points, and the excellent observation that Ray is basically functioning as a high leverage reliever whose outings last nearly the length of entire games.
"He throws every pitch with maximal effort, his grunts ringing around the yard. He attacks the zone, works ahead and regularly rears back to challenge hitters with his heater in fastball counts," he wrote. "Here it is. Try and hit it."
As we saw once again on Wednesday, and as we'll see below, they cannot.
The batter: Randy Arozarena
The situation: Top 1, 0 outs, 2-2
It's only fitting Ray would start his day with a strikeout. This one was definitely tougher than some of the ones to come, as Aroazarena got a generous call at the top of the zone for ball one, then swung through a middle-in fastball and then fouled one off that caught the absolute centre of the plate. Ray then missed with a fastball high before getting an off-balance Arozarena to foul off a couple of sliders in the zone — one near the inner edge and low, the other a backdoor job that caught the outer edge of the plate. What came next was the pitch below — a nasty four-seamer with a little more arm-side run than the modest amount he usually generates (Alek Manoah he is not, at least in that sense), but not so much as to miss the edge of the zone. Swing and a miss!
The batter: Manuel Margot
The situation: Top 1, 1 out, 0-2
Ray had a much easier time with the Rays' number two hitter, Margot, who reached to foul off a slider low, then was pumped a fastball down the middle (foul), a fastball at the top edge of the zone (foul), and the fastball he could do nothing with that we see here. Dominance in the zone. You love to see it.
The batter: Brandon Lowe
The situation: Top 2, 0 outs, 1-2
Ray started out the lefty with a slider outside, which Lowe reached to foul off. On Ray’s second pitch he was robbed of a strike on a front door slider, so he went back to the fastball: one caught the outside edge and was fouled off, the next (below) was outside but Lowe swung anyway. Your stuff has to be pretty good, and pretty unpredictable to get big league hitters to look foolish like this on a fastball!
The batter: Mike Zunino
The situation: Top 2, 1 out, 3-2
As I mentioned in last night’s piece on the game, Zunino has given Ray a little bit of trouble this season, going 4-for-12 against him on the season, and blasting three home runs (including one on Wednesday night). It is maybe unsurprising, then, that he managed to get the count to 3-2 before being dispatched by Ray for just the second time this year.
At one point in the at-bat things were even trickier for Ray than that makes it sound. His first three pitches, all fastballs, missed either outside or above the zone. He then went back to the fastball on 3-0, getting it just close enough to the inner black that Zunino could only foul it off. The next pitch was a slider that ended up right in the centre of the plate, but with Zunino needing to be ready for the fastball he could again do nothing with it. Nor could he do anything but swing and miss when he got this beefy belt-high one that ended his at-bat.
The batter: Jordan Luplow
The situation: Top 2, 2 outs, 1-2
At this stage Ray was continuing to just pump fastballs into the strike zone, and the Rays hitters were continuing to be able to do nothing with them. The only ball in this at-bat was an 0-2 slider that missed inside as Luplow successfully watched it go by. Another upper-third fastball was the out pitch here, registering at 95.7 mph on the radar gun — not exceptional velocity for a big leaguer these days, but damn, those pitches must just absolutely get on top of these hitters.
The batter: Brandon Phillips
The situation: Top 3, 1 out, 0-2
Phillips was simply overmatched in this at-bat, digging himself an early hole by looking at an 0-0 fastball that caught a bunch of the plate. He took a swing at fastball number two, which was a little bit inside, and missed. The third pitch was a strike, but not in a spot where he could put a good swing on it — or, in fact, any wood at all.
The batter: Nelson Cruz
The situation: Top 4, 0 outs, 1-2
Cruz has quietly produced just a 110 wRC+ since coming over to the Rays in a mid-season trade with the Twins. Nonetheless, the slugger is still maybe the most dangerous hitter in this lineup for a left-handed pitcher (with apologies to Zunino, Arozarena, and the injured Wander Franco). As such — and also because this was the second time Ray had seen him in this game — things went a little bit differently here. Or, at least, this was the first strikeout Ray would register with a slider — this absolutely perfect one that was setup by a slider inside (foul), a fastball even more inside (foul), and a fastball up (ball). Not much anyone can do with a 1-2 pitch like that at 90 mph when you have no idea where the next heater may be going!
The batter: Brandon Lowe
The situation: Top 4, 2 outs, 2-2
Another strikeout by slider here, as Ray fed Lowe a diet of fastballs to get to 2-2 before either crossing the batter up or throwing him a pitch that just wasn't where he expected it to be. Whichever works!
The batter: Taylor Walls
The situation: Top 5, 1 out, 1-2
We say that Ray is out there just throwing fastballs and sliders, but the reality is not quite as simple as that. The slider that Ray threw to get Lowe out to end the fourth was not the same as the one he threw to get Walls out in this at-bat — and it certainly wasn't similar to the first one Walls saw, which came in at just 84.2 mph and had a downward break of 35 inches (compared to the 90 mph one with a 26 inch break that Lowe saw). Walls looked at that first slider, but then got two fastballs in almost exactly the same spot on the inner/upper part of the zone (one he watched, another he fouled off) before getting a slider somewhere in between our polar opposites: 87.3 mph, 29 inches of break. Ray is just toying with them at this point!
The batter: Randy Arozarena
The situation: Top 6, 0 outs, 1-2
A knuckle curve for a ball started off this at-bat. Then Arozarena — who had put a fastball in play (for an out) in his previous at-bat — got three straight sliders low and inside. He managed to foul off the middle one, but swung over the other two, including this beauty. Sit down, Randy!
The batter: Nelson Cruz
The situation: Top 6, 2 outs, 2-2
Cruz time again, and now we’re seeing more of the kitchen sink approach. A knuckle curve at his feet for ball one, a back door slider for strike one, a changeup (at 91.1 mph!) way outside for ball two, then finally a pitch to hit: a fastball over the heart of the plate. A presumably discombobulated Cruz could only foul it off, so he geared up and took a ferocious rip at the next one he saw, which — unfortunately for him — was head high. Strike three!
The batter: Yandy Díaz
The situation: Top 7, 0 outs, 0-2
Díaz was the only Rays hitter on the day who Ray had yet to strike out, but he finally did it here with three straight sliders: one that beautifully caught the inside corner, then two more inside that Díaz swung over top of. Sit down, Yandy!
The batter: Jordan Luplow
The situation: Top 7, 2 outs, 1-2
Here we have Ray's last batter of the night, and for this one it was back to fastball/slider. He missed high with the heater for ball one, got a generous call with a slider outside to get to 1-1. A good four-seamer on the inner black was fouled off for strike two. Luplow next fought off a back door slider to make it 2-2, then did what everybody else seemed to do all night: swung right over top of a beauty. Pure dominance.
Holy crap Ray struck out a lot of guys. Pay this man! Ray for Cy Young!