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Seattle Mariners

Commentary: What’s wrong with Robbie Ray? Nothing, the Mariners pitcher insists, he can’t fix in a single inning

Robbie Ray of the Seattle Mariners pitches during the first inning against the Tampa Bay Rays at T-Mobile Park on Thursday, May 5, 2022, in Seattle.   (Steph Chambers/Tribune News Service)
Matt Calkins Seattle Times

You’re not going to see much emotion on Robbie Ray’s face. The Mariners pitcher is as cool as, well — a Seattle afternoon in the middle of freakin’ June.

But he isn’t happy. He’s hurting. The reigning American League Cy Young winner has watched his numbers skyrocket to Space Needle heights.

Through 12 starts, Ray is 5-6 with an ERA of 4.97 — the highest of the Mariners’ starters. His 27 walks are the seventh most in the major leagues, and he has a WAR of -0.2. Compare this to 2021, when Ray led the American League in ERA (2.84), innings pitched (193.1), strikeouts (248) and WHIP (1.045), and you have a southpaw miffed about how far things have gone south.

“I’m obviously extremely upset about the situation,” Ray said Friday. “I love this game. So it’s definitely frustrating everything that I’ve gone through so far this year.”

If this were diving or figure skating, where judges throw out the worst score of each performance — or in this case the worst inning of each game — Ray would be in contention for a second-straight Cy Young. Unfortunately for the 30-year-old, there seems to be one frame in most games in which opponents draw a mustache on his Mona Lisa.

The four runs Ray allowed against the White Sox on April 13 all came in the second inning. The three runs he allowed against the Marlins on April 30 all came in the fifth. The four runs he gave up against the Rays in his next start all came in the fourth. Four of the five runs he surrendered to the Mets on May 15 came in the fourth.

He allowed four runs in the third against Boston later in the month, then three runs in the second vs. Baltimore on the first of June, then three runs in the second vs. Houston in the second in his last start … and you get the point.

There is a common thread in each of these blowup innings: Ray gives up a walk, maybe two, then allows a home run that changes the course of the game. So is it a mechanical thing? Something involving his delivery? Ray rejects such questions.

“I think it’s a mental lapse. I can throw strikes. I’ve done it. I have a lot of trust in my stuff,” said Ray, emphasizing how “every single time the walk comes back to bite me.

“Maybe in that situation I need to take a step back and not make too much of that situation.”

No doubt Ray — who has made his living off his four-seam fastball and slider — can throw strikes. His 9.8 K’s per nine innings are 14th in MLB. But last year he was fifth, and two years before that third, and two years before that second. In fact, at this rate, Ray will finish with a single-digit strikeouts-per-nine for the first time since 2015 — his first full year in the big leagues.

One question that’s going to come up among fans — fair or not — is whether Ray’s big payday is affecting his performance. His previous contract never paid him more than $8 million per season in what’s been an inconsistent career. Then he went out and won the Cy with the Blue Jays last season and inked a five-year, $115 million deal with the Mariners.

Potentially, this could detrimentally affect a player in one of two ways: 1) strip him of his hunger to succeed, or 2) place overwhelming pressure on him to justify the contract. Again, Ray shakes me off like a rookie catcher.

“I don’t think (the contract) puts a lot of pressure on me. I’ve always been a guy that really cares about my job and I care about my teammates and I preach going out every single time and giving my team a chance to win,” Ray said. “Regardless if I’m making … whatever. It doesn’t matter what the paychecks are coming in. I care about my job and I care about everything I do.”

Ray said he made a breakthrough last season in regards to his delivery, which allowed him to rise to the top of the American League. Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth said he sees no difference between Ray’s delivery this year vs. last. There aren’t mechanical issues. The ballooning numbers are primarily the result of a lack of execution in one key inning per outing.

That’s why Ray remains confident things will improve. Mariners manager Scott Servais feels the same way.

“I love having him in our rotation. Have the results been at the Cy Young level? No they haven’t. Is he disappointed by the results so far? I’m sure he is. You’re used to competing and having it all work out for you and he hasn’t had it,” Servais said. “But I love what he does for our rotation and what he’s done for our team. I think the results will be better as we move through the season. He’s going to make another 20 starts. I put my money on Robbie Ray.”

The Mariners already put a lot of money on Robbie Ray. Thus far, he hasn’t delivered. The man has stayed cool throughout the process, but if the M’s want to end this playoff drought, they need him to get hot.