In five innings of work last week, pitcher Robbie Ray displayed all the reasons he has excited, tantalized and, at times, tormented the Diamondbacks and their fans the last four-plus seasons.
The mid-90s fastball. The complementary breaking pitches. The ability to take control of a game with his left arm.
The problem was all of the above attributes left the ball park after the fifth inning. Again.
Ray’s velocity dipped, he gave up a couple of hits and manager Torey Lovullo had no choice but to end Ray’s evening of work.
It’s been a recurring theme for Ray, 27, since coming to Arizona prior to the 2015 season via a three-way trade with the Yankees and Tigers.
In three starts this season, Ray hasn’t lasted beyond one out in the fifth inning. The Diamondbacks have been competitive in every game, but if they are going to be better than average this season, they need Ray to consistently pitch deeper into games.
Ray knows this, of course, and believes he’s better prepared to deliver than any other time in his career. He started throwing off a mound earlier this off-season than ever before, the equivalent of a dozen or so bullpen sessions, and arrived at spring training, he said, “ready to throw in a game, day one.
“I’ve never done that,” said Ray, who is scheduled to start Tuesday against the Braves. “I like the way I came into camp. My velocity was there, no real issues of trying to build up innings. Where spring is usually used to work on pitches, I didn’t have anything to work on.”
A lack of control has been Ray’s biggest issue over the years. His 28.8 strikeout percentage since 2015 ranks in the top 10 among starters, but so does his 10.6 walk percentage.
Ray walked 10 batters in his first two starts this season, escalating his pitch count and leading to early exits. Against the Rangers last week, however, he walked only one batter. But 10 strikeouts led to a high pitch count and a resulting decrease in velocity.
By the fifth inning or so, Ray has difficulty overcoming trouble. Against the Rangers, third baseman Eduardo Escobar made an error in the fifth inning, and Ray said afterward that running the bases in the fourth inning took something out of him.
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Still, he had thrown only 83 pitches in those five innings and could get only one out in the sixth.
“I thought those first five innings were pretty clean,” Lovullo said that night, “but we want him to pitch deeper into games. We know he’s capable of doing that but his pitch count just ran up that one inning.”
If Ray is capable of consistently doing that, he hasn’t shown it. That creates a challenge for Lovullo in deciding if Ray has hit a speed bump or a wall during a game.
Ray considers himself a strikeout pitcher, which is nice, but that means more pitches and earlier exits. But how does someone all of a sudden become more of a ground ball pitcher?
“I’ve gotten into situations where that’s hurt me,” he said, “but I’ve also gotten situations where, bases loaded, nobody out and you punch out the next three guys.”
Endurance, Ray said, isn’t an issue. “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”
But would it make more sense to pace himself in a game in an effort to last longer? Maybe, but Ray is not going to do that.
“I’m a max-effort pitcher,” he said. “I throw every pitch as hard as I can for as long as I can. I’ve never been a guy who can sit there and sink the ball and cut the ball, change up. I’ve never been a finesse guy.
“Maybe way later in my career that’s something I’ll have to dabble in.”
This season – really, the first half of this season – is pivotal for the Diamondbacks and Ray. If he pitches well, the Diamondbacks likely will be in contention and Ray will remain in Arizona.
If he doesn’t, or if the Diamondbacks struggle in the first half, Ray would an attractive trade target for a contending team.
What the Diamondbacks need to find out is if Ray is a young player going through growing pains, or if this who he is: a power pitcher who struggles to last beyond the fifth inning.
Ray’s answer to those questions is “be patient. It’s coming. Honestly, this is as good as I’ve felt early in the year. I’ve got nothing but high expectations for myself.”
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Watch the Shot Clock
With all the talk about being traded Josh Rosen has stayed quiet and Kent Somers and Bob McManaman think Rosen may just stay with the team.
Brian Snyder, Arizona Republic