BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Mariners Breakdown: What to know about Cy Young winner Robbie Ray

Nov 30, 2021, 9:15 AM | Updated: 9:32 pm
Mariners Robbie Ray...
Robbie Ray salutes the crowd in Toronto after coming out of a Sept. 5 game against Oakland. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

After seeing some of the top free agents come off the board over the weekend, the Mariners made a splash of their own, inking left-handed starting pitcher Robbie Ray to a five-year deal reportedly worth $23 million annually.

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Ray was one of the top starting pitchers on this year’s free agent market, and for very good reason.

Let’s dive into who the newest member of the Mariners’ starting rotation is.

The reigning AL Cy Young winner

Let’s start with a big reason for Ray getting paid – he was the best pitcher in the American League last season while with the Toronto Blue Jays.

In 32 starts in 2021, Ray went 13-6 with a 2.84 ERA and 248 strikeouts over 193 1/3 innings with just 52 walks. The walks number is key as just a year before, Ray walked 31 batters in 31 innings before being traded to the Blue Jays from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Ray led the American League in ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched, which earned him the AL Cy Young Award at the end of the 2021 season.

Though you may think 2021 was an All-Star season for Ray, he actually didn’t make the AL team at midseason. He’s still a one-time All-Star, though, making the National League All-Star team in 2017, a year where he finished seventh in NL Cy Young voting.

This year was Ray’s age 29 season, and he turned 30 on Oct. 1.

The career numbers

Ray was a 12th-round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals and made his MLB debut in 2014 as a member of the Detroit Tigers. He was then traded to the Diamondbacks, where he stayed from 2015 until the 2020 trade deadline when he was sent to Toronto.

Ray was a very effective pitcher during his six years in Arizona despite a poor end to his Diamondbacks tenure, going 47-46 with a 4.11 ERA and 998 strikeouts in 147 starts (793 innings).

Over his career, Ray owns a 62-58 record with a 4.00 ERA and 1,290 strikeouts in 1,035 2/3 career innings.

The strikeout numbers clearly stand out, and for good reason. Ray owns the highest strikeouts per nine innings rate in MLB history at 11.2 per nine. He also set an MLB record in 2021 for most career strikeouts through 1,000 innings pitched with 1,241.

The arsenal of pitches

Ray uses four pitches overall but mainly relies on his four-seam fastball and slider. He used those two pitches in 2021 at clips of 59.4% and 30.8%, respectively, while mixing in the occasional curveball (6%) and changeup (3.4%), per Statcast.

Ray had one of the better fastballs in baseball among starting pitchers, averaging 94.8 mph. Opponents hit .222 off the heater but just .173 off the slider. Ray recorded 116 strikeouts on the fastball and 122 with the slider.

And speaking of the slider, it’s a very hard one, averaging 88.6 mph.

The advanced numbers

I love Statcast and, for the most part, Statcast loves Robbie Ray’s 2021 season.

In the advanced numbers department, Ray excelled in strikeout percentage (93rd percentile), whiff percentage (87th percentile), expected batting average (76th percentile), fastball velocity (75th percentile), walk percentage (73rd percentile), expected ERA (72nd percentile) and expected weighted on-base average (72nd).

Got all that? Basically, Ray misses bats, throws strikes and gets outs. All very good things for pitchers to do.

But where Ray struggled was in terms of limiting hard contact, which makes sense given Ray allowed 33 home runs in 2021.

Ray’s barrel percentage (16th percentile), hard hit percentage (17th percentile) and average exit velocity (15th percentile) leave a bit to be desired. But aside from the fact that Ray worked around that to put together a stellar 2021, there are two key reasons why that may not be too big of a deal.

A new home ballpark and division

Ray has given up his share of home runs in his career, which makes sense given the aforementioned issues avoiding hard contact.

But there are two big reasons not to stress too much about that.

Why? T-Mobile Park.

Yes, the Mariners’ home ballpark has been, and still is, one of the tougher parks to regularly hit the ball out of for home runs.

Moving in the fences a few years ago did help some, but the low elevation above sea level and well-noted “marine layer,” among other factors, help pitchers keep the ball in the ballpark more than in many other parks, including the two places Ray called home in 2021.

Yes, Ray played for just one club last year, but the Blue Jays had two home ballparks in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Jays initially played at Sahlen Park in Buffalo, N.Y., which is the home of Toronto’s Triple-A team. Sahlen Park is shorter than T-Mobile Park down each foul line and in both outfield corners, but is just a few feet deeper in straightaway center field. The Blue Jays returned on July 30 to Toronto’s Rogers Centre, which is usually one of the more hitter-friendly parks in baseball.

Ray allowed 16 of his 33 home runs at home, so that number may very well go down as he makes half of his starts at home in Seattle.

But you may be pointing out that with 16 of 33 home runs coming at home, more than half came on the road.

That is correct, but I think it should be noted that another reason Ray may be better off with the Mariners is that he’s out of the AL East, where he faced three dangerous lineups in the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. And while the Baltimore Orioles, the fifth AL East team, were poor in 2021, they play at a hitter-friendly park, as well.

Overall, Ray allowed 21 of his 33 home runs to AL East opponents in 16 divisional starts. He especially disliked facing the Yankees, who took him deep seven times and gave him a 6.60 ERA against the Bronx Bombers.

In the AL West, Ray will regularly see the Houston Astros, who will again have a potent lineup, as will the Los Angeles Angels (if healthy), while the Texas Rangers have spent big this offseason. Overall, though, it’s a friendlier division than the AL East when it comes to pitching both in terms of the opponents and the ballparks.

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Mariners Breakdown: What to know about Cy Young winner Robbie Ray