No. 1 starter?
Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto had a little different description when he introduced Robbie Ray to the local media assembled for the introductory news conference Wednesday at T-Mobile Park.
“This is a great day for the Mariners,” a smiling and ecstatic Dipoto said in a teal and navy plaid suit coat. “As you all know from our description of what we were trying to accomplish this offseason, that this lines up very much with what our goals were — to bring in the lead dog for a starting rotation that we think has a chance to go out and be one of the best in the league.”
Ray, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, joins a pack, er, rotation Dipoto called the best since he’s been with the Mariners. It features fellow lefty Marco Gonzales and right-handers Chris Flexen and Logan Gilbert with a fifth spot to be determined.
“Signing the reigning Cy Young Award winner is a rare occurrence,” Dipoto said. “I think this is the ninth time it’s happened in history. So 130-plus Cy Young awards have been handed out. Robbie had a dominant season this year in 2021, leading the league in virtually everything you can lead the league in. He brings an element to us in the strikeout ability that he’s always shown as a major-leaguer. It’s critical to a staff that has generally been more driven toward contact and strike throwing.”
Whatever label you want to give him, Ray embraces that role of responsibility. He made that clear to manager Scott Servais.
“I want to be the guy that is counted on,” he said. “I said I wanted to be the guy that he could let go out there for seven, eight innings every night and just know that he could trust me and we could build that relationship together. So I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy that leads the league in innings every year. That’s the guy that I feel like I am. I feel like that this year, this past year that I locked that in. So I welcome that.”
Ray, accompanied by his wife, Taylor, put on the crisp, white No. 38 Mariners home jersey for the news conference shortly after signing a five-year, $115 million contract that includes an opt-out clause after three seasons.
“Seeing the last series that was played here, the fan base showing up, talking to Jerry and Justin (Hollander) and ownership, seeing the vision and the direction of this team and the way that it was headed, man, I just want to be a part of it,” Ray said. “I could just tell the excitement with this organization and with this city. This team, the city is hungry for a World Series, and I wanted be a part of it and bring it back, bring it here.”
Ray, who turned 30 on Oct. 1, posted a 13-7 record with a 2.84 ERA in 32 starts. In 193 1/3 innings, he racked up 248 strikeouts with only 52 walks and had a 1.045 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings). His 32 starts tied for most in the AL, and he led the league in innings, ERA, strikeouts and WHIP.
He narrowly missed being a unanimous selection for the Cy Young, garnering 29 of 30 first-place votes. Yankees starter Gerrit Cole received the other vote.
“We’ve always focused on dominating the strike zone,” Dipoto said. “And I think that was the key ingredient for Robbie in 2021 in taking the step from good to great. It was dominating zone the way he did.”
It was a significant bounce-back year for Ray, who struggled in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. He made seven starts for the Diamondbacks, posting a 1-4 record and 7.84 ERA. He was traded to the Blue Jays at midseason and made four starts and a relief appearance, finishing with a 1-1 record and 4.79 ERA with Toronto.
Ray credited offseason work to find consistency in his mechanics and delivery.
“I felt like I’ve always had the mindset of going out and attacking, but it didn’t necessarily match up with the delivery,” Ray said. “And this year I feel like I really nailed that down. I feel really good about the consistency of the delivery. And that the consistency matched with that mindset, I feel like is what allowed me to succeed this year.”
He lowered his walk rate from a career-worst 17.9% in 2020 to a career-best 6.7% in 2021.
“I’ve always had swing-and-miss stuff,” he said. “I felt like it was one tweak away, and I was always making a tweak or, trying to change something up. And this past year I feel like I found something that is just never gonna change. It feels right, it feels comfortable, it feels normal, and it’s repeatable. I think that’s the biggest thing, is I was always looking for something that I could repeat and that felt natural to me. I’ve found it, and I hit the ground running with it.”
Dipoto and Ray described a quick process to finalize the deal.
During a media availability Saturday, Dipoto said he had made two free-agent offers. But neither was for Ray.
“It was one that we had out shortly after that,” Dipoto said. “We were still in discussions on Saturday, but there was no offer out.”
Dipoto first spoke with Ray’s agent, Steve Veltman, before Thanksgiving.
“He said to us when we contacted him that Robbie was interested in Seattle,” Dipoto said. “We had our first Zoom (Friday meeting), and we followed it up with a meeting with our pitching guys. The first thing that jumped out with us when we met with Robbie — he was interested in what we were doing on the pitching front and the progressive nature of what our guys tend to do. That was an appeal to him.”