Last year, for the first time in his big league career, Robbie Ray was an ace.
There have been aces in Seattle before. Félix Hernández and Randy Johnson stood at the pinnacle, winning Cy Young Awards in a Seattle Mariners uniform. Freddy Garcia, Hisashi Iwakuma, Jamie Moyer, Erik Hanson, and Mark Langston all had seasons of brilliance, but were more staff aces than league-wide ones. Two former Cy Young’s have come to Seattle prior to Ray: Gaylord Perry was an anachronistic entertainer with one foot in the Hall of Fame seeking a venue to house his 300th win, while Cliff Lee was a maestro of nigh-unparalleled brilliance in half an otherwise ill-fated season. The first half of the 2010s was fueled in part by a future built upon Cerberus, the three-headed monster of potential aces: James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and Danny Hultzen. The current core of Seattle’s rebuild centers around Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez of course, but their pitching development is integral to the possible long-term health of the franchise, as Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock all hint at traits of the elusive, ambiguous designation.
Ray, by comparison, has been to the promised land before. In essence, he is there; Schrödinger’s ace, he was dominant in 2021. After years of inconsistency, he broke out in his second season in Toronto, with tweaks to point to as credit for his success as well as peripherals warning of the potential for regression. So which past have the Seattle Mariners procured: the wild man of 2014-2016 and 2018-2020? Or the star of 2017 and 2021?
Here’s what the Mariners hope to have acquired for the jewel of their winter:
This is the Ray that shredded the AL East for 193.1 IP in 2021, to the tune of a 2.84/3.69/3.83 ERA/FIP/DRA with 248 strikeouts and just 52 walks. The all-time record holder for K/9 who earned that title under somewhat dubious acknowledgement of his past issues with command reined his walk rate in to just 6.7% while hiking his strikeout rate back up over 30%. He’s the 30 year old southpaw who made, in the words of our Michael Ajeto, a “$115 million tweak”. If you’re inclined towards a full mechanical breakdown, I recommend you go through that article before returning, but the gist is this: years of refinement and relatively significant mechanical adjustments culminated in the former 12th round pick manifesting his fullest potential.
Ray’s velocity has been a moving target throughout his career, as has his ability to, well, hit a target.
Heavy tinkering has helped and hurt and helped again Ray discover and rediscover himself as a pitcher. His most recent resurgence came after several seasons running walk percentages in the double-digits and struggling to grind deep into games despite a well-documented physique built for innings eating. However, one of the first stretches of brilliance for Ray came with Arizona in 2017, courtesy of the first true ace in Mariners threads:
Robbie Ray on the Big Unit's Influence on his career.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 15, 2022
And his wake up call. pic.twitter.com/hB4vf0iG6d
Few players could have been more apt to herald a reckoning for Ray than Randy Johnson, the infamously wild fireballer who was as likely to bore a hole through a hitter’s hip as he was the catcher’s mitt for much of his career. 1993 was Johnson’s first big leap, cutting his walk rate from 15.6% to a still-hefty-but-workable 9.5%. Despite a command plateau in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign, Johnson truly erupted in 1995, earning his Cy Young Award and kicking off nearly a decade of dominance, Steroid Era be damned.
Ray is burlier than the Big Unit’s more mythological dimensions, but his profile is relatively in line. An exceptional fastball, holding pace in the mid-90s, which he has learned to pump across the plate without fear or punity. A tight, sweeping slider that bites late and provides nearly all the support Ray needs to keep hitters off balance from his heater. A pitching philosophy that really boils down to just going to town on the upper half of the strike zone with his fastball (and, more importantly, eschewing the bottom third of the zone) and daring hitters to do something about it. It is striking in its simplicity.
Ray is the antithesis of Marco Gonzales, a detailed portrait artist, or Félix Hernández, a master of evocative, colorful movements. It is a fastball, you won’t hit it, cry about it. He is 33 Thomas Street, unmissable and unmistakable, yet no less effective for it. If the Mariners are powering down the playoff stretch in September, it will likely be with their unmistakable ace leading the charge.