This is the way the stint ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.
- Rating: 2.58
- Age: 29
- 2020 stats (for Arizona): 7G, 31 IP, 7.84 ERA, 43:31 K:BB, 59 ERA+, -0.4 bWAR
- 2020 salary: $9,430,000 (arbitration 3)
- 2021 status: signed 1-year/$8 million to return to Toronto
Robbie Ray needs very little introduction around the Pit anymore. The once-prized left-handed starter landed in Arizona in the winter of 2014, the last installment for Arizona of the painful Trevor Bauer saga. He came to Arizona from Detroit when Arizona sent shortstop Didi Gregorius to the New York Yankees. This was the second high profile trade of Ray’s career, despite the fact that he was only 23 years old and had managed fewer than 30 MLB innings.
In 2015, Ray made 23 starts for the Diamondbacks. While his season was by no means the spectacular breakout many were hoping for, given the pedigree, it was still a rather successful rookie campaign. In 2016, Ray’s starts bumped up to 32, but his overall numbers took a step back. Despite finishing the season as a slightly below average starter, Ray opened many eyes around baseball that year. Most of the damage done against Ray came early in the season, when he clearly was not trusting his stuff and refused to be aggressive in the strike zone, a commonality found throughout the team’s pitching staff (especially the starters not named Zack Greinke) that season. Later in the year, as the season clearly got away from the Diamondbacks, something changed in Ray’s approach. He began to start trusting his fastball and throwing 97 mph heat at the top of the strike zone, essentially opposite of what he was doing from April through June. This change opened plenty of eyes around baseball. Ray jumped from a 2015 mark of 8.4 SO9 all the way to 11.3, this across a full workload of 174.1 innings. Ray’s fastball had ticked up in effectiveness, and his slider was absolutely filthy. Being a tall, left-handed bully of a pitcher with that combination of pitches brought numerous comparisons to former Diamondbacks pitcher, Randy Johnson. This comparison is likely what helped pave the way for Johnson to then spend time working with Ray 1:1, with an eye towards helping Ray harness some efficiency.
In 2017, Ray’s new approach and the lessons he learned paid off in spades. Ray was one of the very best starters in all of baseball. This was the almost finished product of a pitcher whom so many scouts and front offices had been drooling over for years. On May 30, Ray pitched a CGSO against the Pirates, in which he also struck out 10 batters. While the walks trended to the higher side of acceptable for the season, Ray’s proficiency at inducing strikeouts took yet another step forward. He finished the season as the league leader in SO9 with a rate of 12.1. Ray’s second-best best performance of the season (by game score) was the sort that, under normal circumstances, would have garnered several days worth of gushing and attention. Given that it came in the heat of a run to the playoffs and against the hated Dodgers, many in Arizona might pick the game as Ray’s best of the year. Alas, Ray’s awesome outing was overshadowed by the fact that teammate, J.D. Martinez, spanked four home runs that evening in Chavez Ravine. All Ray did was go 7.2 innings and strike out 14.
Thanks in large part to Ray’s 2017 performance, the Diamondbacks made it to the 2017 NL Wild Card game. It was this game in which Ray’s regular season dominance may have become the Diamondbacks undoing. With the winner of the game heading to Los Angeles to face the Dodgers, many were looking forward to Robbie Ray starting that series for Arizona, well-rested and ready to continue his absolute domination of the Dodgers. Zack Greinke had a rare rough outing to start the Wild Card game though. The Diamondbacks needed to stop the Colorado offense and they were looking for a lefty to do it in order to cool down the Rockies’ thumping left-handed bats. Rather than turn to Patrick Corbin, Torey Lovullo called upon Robbie Ray. Ray not only came in and slammed the door shut, he was left in for an additional two innings, throwing a total of 34 pitches, making him unavailable to start against the Dodgers. Instead, that start wound up going to Taijuan Walker. That did not go so well, nor did the series.
In 2018, expectations were high for Ray. Unfortunately for fans in Arizona, he was unable to repeat his excellent 2017. The biggest issue was his high walk rate. This ballooned from an almost acceptable 3.9 walks per game all the way to 5.1. Despite this bloated number of walks, Ray still had plenty of success on the mound and showed flashes of true dominance every few games. There was still reason to believe that Ray just might fine the magic again, though there was also plenty of reason to believe that Ray’s 2017 was the outlier, and the not the norm to be expected moving forward. 2019 brought more of the same. Ray did manage to cut down on the walks some in 2019, but his efficiency problems continued to plague him. He tied his career high of 174.1 IP, but took one extra start to get there. The dream of a left-handed ace to toe the mound every fifth day was gone.
Despite constant trade rumors, Robbie Ray managed to still end up a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks entering the 2020 season. Ray showed up to training in February and March looking leaner and fitter than ever. Additionally, he seemed to have rediscovered two miles per hour on his fastball which had been declining since 2017. There was cautious optimism that Ray might still regain some of his top-of-the-rotation form, especially with the way Ray was outspoken about his need to step up if he wanted to cash in on his impending free agency. Then, COVID-19 struck and derailed the entirety of his offseason workout. Eventually, he did take the mound for the Diamondbacks in their second game of the season. Ray threw 97 pitches in that game, but managed to only complete 3.2 innings. In his next game, he threw 94 pitches, making it only 4.2 innings. Walks were out of hand. Finally, in his third outing, Ray finally managed to complete five full innings. However, he also allowed six earned runs in the outing. Through that point, Ray had walked 11 batters in only 13.1 innings. Two games later, on August 16th, Ray pitched his best game of 2020. It was also the game that was a five-plus inning showcase of the complete Robbie Ray experience. In five-plus innings, he allowed only one run. He did so while allowing no hits and striking out four. He also walked six in that game. Just as Ray’s 2017 excellence played heavily into that team’s playoff season success, Ray’s 2020 struggles fed heavily into the the team woefully underperforming. Ray only made two more starts for Arizona in 2020, allowing another six earned runs in nine combined innings of work. By the time Ray was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for a basket of batting practice balls named Travis Bergen, Ray was sporting an atrocious 9.0 BB9, which completely overshadowed the fact that he was also at a ridiculous career-high strike out rate of 12.5 SO9.
Robbie Ray went from dumpster fire in Arizona to almost league average in Toronto. In a normal, longer season, it seems quite likely that Ray would have finished his 2020 time in Toronto as a serviceable middle-of-the-rotation lefty. Why he couldn’t find that success in Arizona in 2020, we will never know. There is plenty to speculate about. Many point the finger at coaching. Others point out that he spent most of his time in Arizona trying to be too perfect, the result of getting terrible run support. Maybe, he just needed a change of scenery. Whatever it was, his nearly unbelievable meltdown as a starting pitcher in Arizona cost Ray a fortune in free agency dollars. However, Toronto seems to agree that Ray’s performance was promising enough given the circumstances and the short, small sample size. Once the season ended, they made re-signing Ray one of the offseason’s very first moves. Ray will be pitching 2021 for the Blue Jays on a 1 yr/$8 MM make-good contract. Though his age is now working against him, if Ray can even just rediscover his average 2018-19 form, he’ll still see a terrific payday next winter.