Even though the total number of runs produced are down across Major League Baseball in 2021, the inverse eye-popping numbers are few and far between when it comes to the pitching. At least that’s the case in the American League, where competition for the AL Cy Young is a tad top heavy, and lacking some of the usual suspects. Unanimous 2020 winner Shane Bieber has missed a significant chunk of the season (only 14 starts), runner-up Kenta Maeda fell off a cliff in Minnesota, and Hyun Jin Ryu has had consistency issues. Gerrit Cole? Well, he still lingers. He always lingers.
With last season’s top three finalists having regressed slightly or missed time, the door has been busted wide open for some fresh blood in the AL Cy Young race, including one Robbie Ray. Although Ray doesn’t wear the “young phenom” cloak (he’ll be 30 in October and was drafted in only the 12th round), or even carry the “previously-nominated” status (he’s been an All-Star exactly one time in 2017), he has shown flashes of brilliance during this career, albeit in small doses.
In this first full season with the Blue Jays after being acquired from the Diamondbacks in 2020, Ray has put it ALL together. His strikeouts totals, efficiencies, and ERA+ are way up. Meanwhile, his walk rate, earned runs, ERA, WHIP, and FIP are significantly improved. It certainly appears that he’s found a resolution for those control issues that have plagued him most of his career.
Up to this point in the 2021 regular season, any mention of Ray’s Cy Young candidacy were merely whispers (which have recently grown louder), as if people were anticipating the wheels to come off his dominant season.
But not so.
Last night, in overpowering the first place Chicago White Sox (7.0 IP, 1 ER, 14 Ks), Ray has officially demanded the attention of Major League Baseball’s award-voting community. And after that performance, he might even be considered near the top of the clubhouse lead.
Let’s compare the digits of the AL’s most worthy candidates (qualified players only):
The AL Central-leading White Sox have not one, but two strong candidates in Lance Lynn and Carlos Rodon, who have been consistent since April. Lynn has the best (qualified) winning percentage and leads the league in ERA, with Rodon right behind him, in fewer innings pitched, as he spent some time on the IL. It’s not a coincidence that Chicago has the largest division lead right now (9 games) of any division in baseball, with these two aces pitching every five days. And here I picked Lucas Giolito, their teammate, to win the Cy Young this season. Go figure.
And of course, Gerrit Cole is right there, and likely poses the stiffest competition down the stretch along with Lynn. I’d even go as far as to say the award is Cole’s to lose. While his ERA is just a smidge higher than it’s been in the last four seasons, every other metric illustrates his utter dominance. Oh, and the Yankees, winners of 11 straight games, are on an absolute tear right now.
As much as I marvel at what Shohei Ohtani is doing this season on both sides of the ball, he doesn’t have quite enough work to truly be in the conversation.
Robbie Ray’s overall numbers have at a minimum, catapulted him into the “best pitcher in the American League” discussion. His AL-leading strikeout total (including the 14 last night) serves as evidence in his overpowering of hitters this season. More significantly, when we talk about things like “most valuable” pitcher to his own team, Ray leads the AL in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for pitchers, an all-encompassing statistic, by a sizable margin. He’s actually 4th overall in the American League when factoring in position players as well, behind only Ohtani, Carlos Correa, and his teammate Marcus Semien.
Here are some of his AL ranks in some key categories (and some advanced stats, for the sabermetrics nerds):
WAR (overall): 4th
WAR (pitchers): 1st
Earned Run Average: 2nd
Hits per 9 IP: 4th
Walks per 9 IP: 9th
Strikeouts per 9 IP: 3rd
Innings Pitched: 3rd
Strikeouts/Walk Ratio: 3rd
Adjusted ERA+: 2nd
Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP): 6th
Adjusted Pitching Wins: 2nd
Base-Out Runs Saved (RE24): 1st
Win Probability Added (WPA): 3rd
Base-Out Wins Saved (REW): 1st
Unlike the others, he’s done this behind a overpowering surge over the past two months of the season and seems to have gotten stronger (and smarter) as the season has progressed. Currently, he’s riding what’s easily the best 10-game stretch of his career:
Considering he posted a 6.62 ERA and 1.90 WHIP last season between Arizona and Toronto, with control being his overwhelming nemesis, Ray’s 180-degree turnaround provides quite the narrative in the midst of a Cy Young bid. He’s drastically reduced his walk rate despite sustaining his elite strikeout rate. This has in turn, has significantly lessened the number of earned runs he’s surrendered. In 2020, he walked 45 batters in 51.2 innings (giving up 38 earned runs). This season, he’s issued only 37 free passes over 152.1 innings (allowing almost the same number of earned runs, 46, despite throwing over 100 more innings).
Ray’s improvement has been utterly remarkable and with perfect timing, as he’s set to become a free agent in 2022.
When it comes to a potential playoff push over the season’s final month, the Blue Jays are currently on the outside looking in, as they sit 12 games behind in the American League East and 4.5 games behind the Red Sox/Yankees for a wild card spot. Much of the team’s inconsistencies can be attributed to a faulty bullpen and one in plenty of flux. The team is 2-9 in extra inning games, 9-14 in 1-run games, and -8 in “Pythagorean Luck” (which is the difference the actual W-L and Pythagorean W-L).
Needless to say, the team’s underperformance cannot be placed on one Robbie Ray. Given his collection of eye-popping statistics, his 9-5 record is a bit of an injustice. In his last five starts, he’s garnered five no-decisions in which he pitched 6, 6, 7, 8, and 7 innings respectively (and yielded only a skimpy 6 earned runs in the process). The team went 2-3 in those five starts. Again, an injustice.
Regardless, the Blue Jays have a Cy Young contender on their hands, who continues to grow stronger as the regular season enters its final month. Whatever the season’s final outcome, the Blue Jays brass would be smart to bring Robbie back on a longer term contract to keep a very impressive rotation intact for next season and beyond.
Cheers, and let’s enjoy the rest of this pitching party.