Seattle Mariners: Can Robbie Ray really be an ace?

Aug 30, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Robbie Ray (38) pitches to the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 30, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Robbie Ray (38) pitches to the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports /

The Seattle Mariners, holders of the longest current playoff drought in baseball, are placing their chips on reigning AL Cy Young winner, Robbie Ray, to be their unquestioned ace for the 2022 season.

Ray pitched to the tune of a 13-7 record for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2021 where he also led the American League in ERA (2.48), Starts (32), Innings Pitched (193.1), WHIIP (1.045), and ERA+ (154). On top of that, he also led the entire Major League in strikeouts (248).

Can Robbie Ray be the ace the Seattle Mariners need?

But are the Mariners now getting a bona fide ace in Ray? Or have they simply jumped too quickly at the line after the year he had?

More Mariners. Seager announces surprising retirement. light

The answer to this question might actually be neither of these two options per se, but rather somewhere in the middle.

I don’t know exactly what Ray will produce in 2022, 2023, and so on. Nor do I have a clear idea of what he may be able to produce. And therein lies his biggest hurdle to overcome.

Let me start with this…

His biggest glaring issue has always been free passes, which is what makes him leading the AL in WHIP this past year such a phenomenal turnaround because in every season leading up to 2021, the lowest BB/9 he posted in a season was a 3.5.

A year ago when Ray played between both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Blue Jays, he also tallied 45 walks in 51.2 innings pitched and his WHIP was about .850 points higher (1.897) than it was exactly a year later in 2021. His BB/9 was 7.8 in 2020.

Ray’s dramatic turnaround came in the form of him tallying his lowest BB/9 ever (2.4) and also the second-highest average fastball velocity of his career, per Baseball Savant, of 94.8.

High walk rate and high strikeout rate is what Ray has made his bones on his entire career until 2021. Strangely enough in retrospect, Ray’s lack of control has been his saving grace in that it has allowed him to benefit from hitters never really knowing where the ball was going at any given time.

The fact that he was always a big “walks” guy actually opened up his strikeout game simultaneously. I’m sure we all knew guys like this when we played ball- crazy wild, but also struck a bunch of hitters out.

But here’s the crux of the issue- there usually has to be some sort of year-to-year pattern in being able to predict how well a player can do.

Ray does not possess much of a pattern.

If we look at all of his stats on a broad scale, we will clearly see 2021 was a standout year and nothing leading up to that year suggested a Cy Young performance as imminent.

Ray had a superb 2017 season (his only All-Star selection), but after posting a 2.89 ERA that year, the next-lowest in his career was a 3.52.

He threw 174.1 innings that year (tied for his most ever) and he eclipsed that in 2021 by about 20 innings.

The lowest BB/9 rate of his career was a 3.5 which took place in back-to-back seasons- the first two of his career- in the leadup to his 2.4 BB/9 rate this past year.

What has been consistent with Ray is his strikeout rate and his spin rate.

Ray has averaged an 11.2 SO/9 rate throughout his entire career, which is Hall-of-Fame level stuff, while his fastball spin rate has always hovered in the 2,270 range which is about league-average (according to Baseball Savant).

His curveball and slider spin have both lived in the low 2,100s from day one as well- very low spin rates for breaking pitches.

So, we have a pitcher in Robbie Ray whose spin rate has never been much to behold- especially his secondary pitches, whose walk rate has been off-the-charts with the exception of 2021, whose ERA has plateaued around 4.00 in a 8-year career, and whose work load has never been tested like it was in 2021 as demonstrated by his 193.1 innings.

Conventional wisdom says Ray’s 2021 season was a flash in the pan and that the Seattle Mariners, as a franchise trying its best to finally get back to the playoffs, took a shot and a prayer to strike gold in the reigning Cy Young winner.

However, let me leave you with this….

Spin rate and numbers are very important in today’s game, but they are certainly not everything.

What Ray does really well is attack hitters with the fastball. He wants to go mono-e-mono with hitters and dare them to hit his best pitch as he tries to throw it as hard as he can. That is not typical of today’s pitcher- especially not today’s starting pitcher.

Ray has a tenacity to him much like a quarterback Joe Burrow who may throw you one or two mistakes right off-the-bat, but also won’t be afraid to go right back to that same approach the rest of the game.

Next. Miranda staying in KBO. dark

Like Joe Burrow, Brett Favre, Jameis Winston or any of the high-risk/high-reward, mistake-prone quarterbacks, Robbie Ray is a gunslinger in today’s professional baseball. And that approach is so rare that is just might be crazy enough to work on a more consistent basis.

The Seattle Mariners have an interesting number one starter on their roster in Robbie Ray.