Blue Jays starter Robbie Ray has built a strong case for AL Cy Young

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TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 25: Robbie Ray #38 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Chicago White Sox in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on August 25, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 25: Robbie Ray #38 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches to the Chicago White Sox in the first inning during their MLB game at the Rogers Centre on August 25, 2021 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images)

Recognition comes in many different ways. Robbie Ray is living proof of it.

The 29-year-old left-hander has quietly transformed himself into the Toronto Blue Jays’ ace, putting up strong numbers, pitching deep into games, and making good on his goal to give his team a chance to win every outing.

Ray’s most recent start cemented his season feats, and ensured his efforts wouldn't go unnoticed. After becoming the first Blue Jays lefty to strike out 14 batters in one game, the Tennessee native officially found himself in the American League Cy Young conversation — along with big names like Lance Lynn and Gerrit Cole.

“All year, my main focus has been to go out and put up zeroes and give my team a chance to win,” Ray said on Wednesday after the Blue Jays’ 3-1 win over the Chicago White Sox. “I feel like everything else just kind of falls into place when I'm able to do that.”

Though Ray's league-wide acknowledgement is fairly new, it has been continuous in the Blue Jays' clubhouse.

"We're not screwing around right now and, man, it's easy to send him back (to the mound)," said Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo. "The more he throws, the better he gets. He's that guy. He's had a hell of a year."

Currently leading all AL pitchers in WAR, according to Baseball Reference, Ray has certainly earned his place in the running for Cy Young. But how strong is his case for actually winning the whole thing?

Ray vs. himself

A trade-deadline acquisition in 2020, Ray struggled in the pandemic-shortened season, posting a 6.62 ERA and allowing 45 walks over 51.2 innings between the Jays and the Arizona Diamondbacks — way off from his one and only All-Star year in 2017.

But just as recognition comes in many forms, so does redemption.

Ray’s current 2.72 ERA is the best of his eight-year career, and his 152.1 innings pitched are indicative of a reliable quality starter. Known primarily for his fastball-slider combo, he also mixes in a good curveball and a changeup.

The lefty’s 1.024 WHIP is also by far the best in his career, and he has hit the 10-day IL only once this year, back in early April.

It makes one wonder what took so long to give him the spotlight.

Ray was not on the AL All-Star roster this season, though he has lower ERA and walks-per-nine numbers in 2021 compared to 2017. Twenty-five years old at that time, Ray received some Cy Young consideration then, too. He finished seventh in voting.

Granted, his strikeout and homers-per-nine rates were better that year.

Ray's 3.42 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 2021 also indicates that he's had some help from his friends.

"The defence has been behind me all year," said Ray. "They've been making really good plays. ... I've worked with all of our catchers really well. We've had a good game plan going into every game. So, that's kind of my main focus."

The Blue Jays lefty is set to become a free agent this winter. Adding a Cy Young to his accomplishments certainly wouldn't hurt in contract negotiations.

Ray vs. the field

Ray currently leads all AL pitchers with a 5.7 WAR, according to Baseball Reference, and that might be his greatest difference-maker against the competition. But it's never an easy task to face off against the likes of Carlos Rodon, Lynn, or Cole (with or without Spider Tack).

We're still in August and Cole has already reached 200 strikeouts on the season, leading the New York Yankees to a stellar month that has seen them hop right back into a wild-card spot. A 2.80 ERA and a league-leading 0.986 WHIP make Cole's Cy Young case even more solid.

Cole trails Ray in innings pitched, but he does have two complete games this season. He's also a staple name playing for arguably the most famous sports franchise in the world, and is a former World Series champion.

As for the strikeout count, it'll be neck-and-neck between the two from here to the end of the season.

Lynn and Rodón, on the other hand, have been a pivotal part of the White Sox's success this season. After a flurry of trade-deadline moves, Chicago has taken a commanding lead in the AL Central and is all but guaranteed a first-round series in the postseason.

A 10-year MLB veteran, Lynn is no stranger to the big stage. He earned a World Series ring in his rookie year and saw his career take off from there. The right-hander leads MLB with a 2.20 ERA this season and his 6.7 hits-per-nine rate is also the lowest in the league.

Lynn had a couple of subpar outings in August, but bounced right back with a seven-inning, one-run start against the Blue Jays last Monday.

His teammate Rodón was right there with Lynn on the American League All-Star team at Coors Field this season. A White Sox product, Rodón has a 2.43 ERA with a 0.968 WHIP this year, with 163 strikeouts to boot.

The 28-year-old Rodón landed on the 10-day IL in early August with shoulder fatigue. He pitched just five innings in his latest start — a win against the Blue Jays — allowing two earned runs and five hits with three strikeouts.

Oakland A's right-hander Chris Bassitt is an honourable mention on this list. He would have been right up there with these guys had he not suffered a broken jaw after being struck in the face by a line drive.

Ray vs. past winners

Shane Bieber. Justin Verlander. Blake Snell.

These are just the most recent names Ray would join should he win this year's AL Cy Young Award. These pitchers' award-winning seasons are also a useful barometer for whether Ray actually has a chance to come away with it.

In the pandemic-shortened season, Bieber posted a 1.63 ERA over 77.1 innings pitched, earning the pitching triple crown as he led all of baseball in win-loss record, ERA and total strikeouts. The righty's performance also earned him a fourth-place finish in the AL MVP ballot.

Has Ray been that good? No. But who has, really?

Verlander's feats have been the stuff of lore for years now. In 2019, the Houston Astros ace posted 300 strikeouts over 223 innings pitched for his second career Cy Young.

Another one of his rotation mates also managed over 300 punchouts that year. His name? Gerrit Cole.

In 2018, two years before he led the Tampa Bay Rays to a World Series appearance, Snell earned his Cy Young Award by posting a 1.89 ERA with 221 strikeouts over 180.1 innings pitched. He had a 7.1 WAR over 31 starts that year.

Snell's performance might be the closest comparable to Ray's current season, and a good indication that his numbers are award-worthy.

If Ray pulls it off, he'll join Pat Hentgen, Roger Clemens and Roy Halladay on the list of Blue Jays Cy Young Award winners.

But he'll probably say he hasn't thought about that.

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