Bow down to Bob: Inside Robbie Ray’s special season

It was November 7 when the Toronto Blue Jays decided to get ahead of what eventually turned out to be a franchise-altering offseason.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan broke the news that the Blue Jays had agreed to a one-year, $8-million contract with Robbie Ray, who they traded for just over two months prior. A low-risk acquisition and subsequent signing if ever there was one, the Blue Jays dealt for Ray amid a brutal campaign for the then 28-year-old southpaw, who had struggled mightily to find the strike zone in 2020 with Arizona. Even before that, in 57 starts from 2018–2019, Ray’s BB/9 was 4.7 despite striking out 12 batters per nine innings.

Enter the Blue Jays, who sent journeyman reliever Travis Bergen (whom they later reacquired) to Arizona for Ray. First impressions were mixed. Ray’s BB/9 dipped minimally in five games with his new team, dropping from 9.0 in 31 innings with the Diamondbacks to 6.1 in 20 2/3 innings down the stretch with Toronto. It remained unclear if Ray had done enough to entice the Blue Jays front office to resign him as he entered free agency. When they ultimately decided to bring Ray back on a prove-it deal, it was seen as a depth move more than anything else. The club seemed resolute at adding a more established name to a starting rotation that finished the shortened season 27th in baseball in fWAR, 17th in ERA, and 24th in HR/9.

Ray’s ascension from an unpredictable afterthought to one of baseball’s elite starting pitchers is fascinating on so many levels. After Monday’s start, his 26th of the season, Ray lowered his ERA to 2.71 and surpassed the 200-strikeout threshold becoming the American League leader in the process.

He also became baseball’s all-time leader in career K/9 ahead of future Hall of Fame starters Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

He joined Blue Jays starter Roger Clemens as the only two pitchers in team history with 10-plus strikeouts in three straight starts. It’s Ray’s world, and we’re just living in it.

His world-class performance is one the Blue Jays won’t soon forget. It’s coincided with the club returning to play in Canada after being forced to the U.S. during the pandemic. It’s also going to make for a challenging decision once Ray becomes a free agent with an opportunity to get paid. The most recent comparable is Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler, who in 2019 at age 29 — the same age as Ray — agreed to a five-year, $118 million contract. Wheeler signed after a season in which he finished with a 3.96 ERA and 195 strikeouts in 195 innings pitched (9.0 K/9 and 4.1 bWAR). Ray is striking out three more batters per nine innings and is at 5.9 bWAR after Monday’s start. With that in mind, it’s reasonable — and frankly, likely — to think Ray gets more money.

Way more money.

Whether the Blue Jays entertain that kind of offer remains to be seen. What is true right now is that Ray deserves every penny. In the last 30 days, Ray leads all qualified starters in fWAR (1.8) while pitching to an ERA of 1.76. Those free passes he used to issue at a high rate are now a thing of the past, too.

That will play and pay. But ask Ray if he thinks about what may come from his career year, and you’ll get little in terms of response.

“I don’t focus on personal accolades. Going out every time, trying to win every pitch, putting up zeros for my team. Everything has fallen into place,” Ray told Sportsnet recently.

“I’m just focused on one game at a time. Everything as far as free agency will fall into place, as long as I put up zeros and give my team a chance to win.”

A chance to win. When he’s been on the mound this year, few starters have provided their teams with a better outcome than Ray. What it means for the Blue Jays is simple. Despite trailing the final AL Wild Card spot by 4.5 games entering Tuesday, if Ray continues his utter dominance on the mound, the Blue Jays should have no problem racking up wins when he starts. As long as the club continues to get modest production from Jose Berrios (terrific in his most recent start), Hyun Jin Ryu, rookie Alek Manoah, and Steven Matz — and the lineup finds a way to score more than three runs per game — they have a chance to get back on track. You don’t get to a plus-118 run differential on sheer luck alone.

As for what it means for Ray? Well, he’s riding one hell of a wave. There will be a paycheck that exceeds $100 million written in his name when the time comes. That’s what happens when you blow expectations out of the water — hell, the galaxy — on a one-year pact, a commitment that will likely go down as one of if not the best signings in team history.

It’s Bob’s world. We’re just living in it, in reverence start after start and strikeout after strikeout.

Journalist/Reporter. Current: @680News | Published work: @thescore, @CDNbaseball | Contact: lukecasaletto@gmail.com