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Mariners Reel in an Ace to Keep With the Pace in AL West

Seattle took a big step toward building off of its surprise success last season by signing 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray on Monday.

Close your eyes and travel back in time with me—way back to the year 2018. Bryce Harper was a National, the Rockies made the playoffs, and the Orioles were ... still terrible. But a funny thing happened in the Pacific Northwest that season: the Mariners, despite being outscored on the year by 34 runs, won 89 games and hung around the playoff race much longer than most expected them to (sound familiar?).

Rather than build on that surprise success in 2019, the team followed it up by losing 94 games, then finished below .500 again in 2020. After shocking many with a 90-win, minus-51 run season in 2021, Seattle now appears intent on staying in the game’s upper tier.

The Mariners took a considerable step toward ending the franchise’s two-decade postseason drought on Monday, agreeing to a five-year, $115 million deal with reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray. The move signals a front office deciding quite emphatically that the rebuilding phase is ready to give way to contention and, if things go by design, meaningful games in October.

Robbie Ray broke out in a big was in 2021, going 13-7 with a 2.84 ERA to win the AL Cy Young Award.

Before breaking out last season, Ray slogged his way through an erratic 2020. He walked a staggering 17.9% of batters across 51⅔ innings, averaging nearly eight walks per nine frames. Ray had been a real “Three True Outcomes” darling prior to 2021, racking up strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed at a higher clip than most any other starter.

But everything clicked for the left-hander last year. After re-signing with Toronto on a one-year, $8 million contract, Ray nearly cut his free passes in half, posting a 6.7% walk rate after a career mark of 11% heading into the season.

While harnessing his control, Ray did not lose grip on his ability to miss bats. Ray struck out 32.1% of hitters he faced in 2021, just shy of his career high. No pitcher in baseball history has struck out more batters in his first 1,000 career innings than Ray, and though he still gave up his fair share of home runs (1.54 HR/9 in 2021), his command of the strike zone has significantly raised his floor and made him among the most difficult pitchers to handle in the league.

So how did Ray get so much better seemingly overnight? For one, he relied more heavily on his fastball to much improved results. Opposing hitters batted .292 with a .682 slugging percentage against Ray’s four-seam fastball in 2020, perhaps as a result of the left-hander’s substandard command, which enabled them to hunt heaters at will. In the previous four seasons combined, opponents hit .215 with a .371 slugging percentage against the pitch, while Ray posted a 4.04 ERA across 117 starts.

Ray rediscovered his command last year and leaned on the four-seamer, throwing it nearly 60% of the time and holding hitters to a .222 batting average against it. He all but scrapped his curveball and became more or less a two-pitch pitcher, going with the slider at a 30.8% clip. Perhaps another adjustment is needed and Ray will have to find a third pitch that he trusts, but the results were there with this current approach.

As mentioned above, the Mariners thrived last season despite being outscored in the aggregate by 51 runs. By comparison, the Tigers (minus-59) went 77–85 last year and the Rockies (minus-57) went 74–87. Seattle’s rotation ranked 19th in ERA (4.61) and 22nd in fWAR (7.3), while its offense was 26th in fWAR (11.5) and 28th in on-base percentage (.303). This is not an attempt to dismiss the team’s success from a season ago—on the contrary, it’s remarkably impressive that the Mariners even sniffed the playoffs—but this is not a roster that exudes postseason potential, even with a bullpen that was outstanding down the stretch in close games.

Ray’s arrival certainly doesn’t change all that, but if his adjustments last year are here to stay, he gives Seattle a bonafide ace that every playoff team craves. Ray led the AL with 193⅓ innings last season, and his ability to pitch deep into games will be critical for a team that might need to replace one of the few proven starters it had last season in Yusei Kikuchi, who is currently a free agent. Other starters currently in the fold are Chris Flexen, Logan Gilbert and Marco Gonzales.

The AL West is currently shaping up to be quite an arms race, and the Mariners still have strides to make to be considered among the top of the heap. Landing Ray is just one step, but it’s a meaningful one. Seattle might not be a playoff team just yet, but with Ray in the fold and a farm system brimming with talent that’s ready to make an impact at the big-league level, the light at the end of the tunnel is drawing ever closer.

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