TORONTO – Almost exactly one year ago, Robbie Ray signed an $8-million, one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays determined to resuscitate his career. He worked out at the gym twice daily to build strength. He changed his delivery, reverting to the pitching motion with the coil he had in 2012 as an A-baller in the Washington Nationals system, but had slowly transformed in the years since. He got strong physically, he got right mentally and came into 2021 ready to attack.
“Going into spring training, I saw the results almost immediately in my bullpen sessions as far as velocity and command,” he said. “And then I just felt like I hit the ground running and everything fell into place.”
That it did, as the 30-year-old from Brentwood, Tenn., delivered the most dominant season of his career, rewarded Wednesday with the American League Cy Young Award. Ray posted a 2.84 ERA and 1.045 WHIP with 248 strikeouts in 193.1 innings across 32 starts, all tops on the circuit, to collect 29 of 30 first-place votes and definitively beat New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
Lance Lynn of the Chicago White Sox finished a distant third in voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America, as the results were reflective of Ray’s dominance on the mound.
Full voting results for AL Cy Young Award … pic.twitter.com/1vgJSPXZlf
— Shi Davidi (@ShiDavidi) November 17, 2021
Ray’s performance stood in stark contrast to a dismal 2020 that led him into a transformative winter, providing the Blue Jays a generous return on their measured-risk value play and spring-boarding the hard-throwing lefty into what will end up a lucrative free agency.
Whereas a year ago he was the first free agent to sign a deal, taking the runway and trust the Blue Jays offered him and getting to work, now he’s getting wined and dined by interested clubs looking for him to simply continue doing what he did.
“My workout routine is something that I’m going to stick with as far as the off-season, that’s something that I really felt was crucial, building that strength, putting on that weight, adding that muscle,” said Ray. “I like to feel strong when I’m on the mound. I always pitch better when I feel like I’m strong. That’s one of the biggest things for me. But also, I feel like my delivery is repeatable, the changes I made are going to stick. Those things mixed with the mindset of I’m attacking the zone, I’m pounding the zone, I’m coming after you, here it is, those three things together mesh really well for me.”
That they did, the command allowing Ray to leverage a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.8 m.p.h. and a slider that generated a whiff 45.8 per cent of the time it was swung at. Though most of the time batters knew they’d be getting one of the two pitches, there wasn’t much they could do with the offerings, as he struck out 32.1 per cent of the hitters he faced.
From the depths of a 6.62-ERA, 17.9-per-cent-walk-rate 2020 that prompted the Arizona Diamondbacks to trade him to the Blue Jays for lefty reliever Travis Bergen (who was repurchased this spring), Ray manifested a destiny long envisioned for him.
“The stuff is elite and it’s always been elite,” Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen said in an interview during the GM meetings last week. “It looks like he’s now locked some things in now that will carry him.”
That the turnaround didn’t happen in Arizona “is hard for us to wrap our minds around,” added Hazen, but also indicative of how rarely such rebounds occur. The Blue Jays, led by pitching coach Pete Walker, did their part in providing him information, ideas and support, but Ray did the heavy lifting by bulking up, finding a steady pitching motion that would consistently produce high-quality strikes and then sticking through the process.
He joined the Blue Jays believing in his stuff but unsure of how to unlock it again the way he did during an all-star 2017 season with the Diamondbacks, and headed home after the 2020 post-season series loss to the Tampa Bay Rays knowing, “I wanted to make changes.”
“Being an elite pitcher is always on my mind,” said Ray. “I know that the stuff is there. It was just a matter of putting it all together.”
— Teoscar Hernandez (@TeoscarH) November 17, 2021
Not even a freak injury at the end of camp, when he hurt his elbow in a fall down stairs at his spring rental while carrying one of his children, could interrupt his progress. Once he got rolling, he was as dependable as any starter in the American League, all while making six starts against the AL East champion Rays (2.33 ERA in 38.2 innings), four against the Boston Red Sox (3.13 ERA in 23 innings) and three against the New York Yankees (6.60 ERA in 15 innings).
“It was definitely smooth,” he said of his season. “I felt prepared going into every single start, physically, mentally, scouting report, everything was already in place going into every start. I knew I put in the work. I’d been in the weight room. I’d done my bullpen sessions. Everything was in line. It was just go out and compete and have fun. Comparing it to 2017, I would say I had some glimpses of it 2017, but not necessarily the continual dominance that I had in 2021. So it was just the building every start on top of one another, there was a snowball effect.”
Part of that snowball effect was a season so good is that just as he became the fourth Blue Jays player to win the Cy Young Award, joining Pat Hentgen (1996), Roger Clemens (1997, 1998) and Roy Halladay (2003), he was also in the midst of a free agency that could land him elsewhere.
Hours earlier, he officially declined the club’s $18.4 million qualifying offer, an expected move given that he’s one of the top free agents on the market, describing the recruitment process as “a lot of fun.”
Whether or not that leads him back to the Blue Jays is another matter.
The $131-million, seven-year contract extension that will soon be announced for Jose Berrios is indicative of how the market in general is valuing elite starting pitching, and while that’s another big ticket in the books, it doesn’t rule him out from a return north.
“That deal is great for him. I’m super happy for him. And he’s earned every penny,” Ray said of Berrios. “This doesn’t change anything for me. Toronto is still in the conversation. We’re still talking with Toronto on a daily basis. That’s just kind of where we’re at, but also we’re testing the free-agent market. This is a fun time. This is fun for me and my family to go through this process and we’re really enjoying it.”
As well they should, having made good on the bet the Blue Jays made on him, the bet he made on himself and finally grasping a Cy Young Award he’d long felt capable of, but had never managed to reach.