Robbie Ray has millions of reasons to take part in the strangest season in baseball history.
The Arizona Diamondbacks starter will be a free agent after the 2020 season, so he wants to take as much advantage as he can from the 10-12 starts he’ll get in a 60-game schedule.
“I need to get out there so everybody can see me pitch,” he says. “This is a crazy, unique situation for everyone, but it is tough for me because I need to pitch so people know what they will be getting this winter.”
After a tough rookie season with the Detroit Tigers in 2014, Ray was traded to the Diamondbacks in a three-way deal that sent Didi Gregorius to the New York Yankees. In five years in Arizona, Ray has developed into an outstanding young starter. He’s gone 46-42 with a 3.96 ERA since joining the team, but it has been his last three seasons that made him a candidate for a nine-digit contract.
In 2017, Ray went 15-5 with a 2.89 ERA and 218 strikeouts in 162 innings. He went to the All-Star Game, finished seventh in the Cy Young voting and helped the Diamondbacks beat the Colorado Rockies in the NL wildcard game. He struggled in his only start against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, but had established himself as a key member of the rotation.
His 2018 season was interrupted by a strained oblique muscle, but he went 6-2 in 24 starts, then followed it up with a 12-8 record in 2019. He’s one of the best strikeout pitchers in the National League, but has never been able to eliminate control issues. He has averaged more than four walks per nine innings during his Arizona years, a problem that puts runners on base and elevates his pitch count.
Ray has worked on his control since last season, but he’s also worked hard to build up his stamina.
“I made a lot of changes in my diet – cutting back on dairy – but a big part of it was just getting disciplined,” he says. “I made sure to stay on my diet and stay on my workout routine, and I stuck with that even during the pandemic. We knew we were going to get a shortened time to get ready for the season, so I wanted to make sure when they told us it was time to show up, I’d be in the best possible shape.”
The preparation was obvious to Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo at the start of both Spring Training and summer camp.
“My first interaction with him was during Spring Training, and he told me on the first day he was ready to throw five innings,” Lovullo says. “It was the same way when I saw him a couple days before this camp 2.0 started. He’s been telling me the whole time that he’s ready for a competitive 2020.”
Ray’s first session of live batting practice on Sunday afternoon impressed his manager more than any words.
“He backed up what he said – he was extremely aggressive,” Lovullo says. “He was throwing balls to both sides of the plate and he had great depth to his breaking ball. It wasn’t perfect – we don’t expect it to be at this point – but for day one, it was outstanding.”
Of course, Ray knows all of his preparation could be wrecked by one or two bad days. In a normal season, he’d be throwing 200 innings over more than 30 starts, so he’d have plenty of time to fix his stats after a rough stretch. In 75 innings over 12 starts, that won’t be quite as easy.
“You aren’t going to be able to get wrapped up in what happens over one or two starts,” he says. “You have to stick with the process that works and understand that it is going to come around over time.
“I also don’t think teams can just look at these 10-12 starts when it comes to making these decisions. They have to look at your body of work for a couple years.”
The other issue is the coronavirus pandemic. Arizona is getting hit as hard as anywhere in the world, and the Diamondbacks are fully aware of how much risk they are taking by going back to work.
“Obviously, safety is our No. 1 concern,” he says. “We’ve been super careful at home, getting all of our groceries delivered and wiping everything down – we’ve been really good about staying on top of it. But if things start getting out of hand and it really comes back full force, the league will have to decide about shutting things down.
“I’m going to be here as long as they let me play.”