After the worst season of his career Robbie Ray knew he had to make some changes.
Those off-season adjustments paid dividends on Wednesday when Ray won the Cy Young Award as the American League's best pitcher in 2021, hours after officially becoming a free agent.
Ray had a 13-7 record for the Toronto Blue Jays with a 2.84 earned-run average and 248 strikeouts over 193.1 innings pitched. His ERA was the best in Major League Baseball while his innings pitched and strikeout totals were the best in the American League.
His award-winning year is a sharp turnaround after a dismal 2020 when he led the majors in walks and went 2-5 with a 6.62 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Blue Jays during the pandemic-shortened season.
"I started working out almost immediately, two-a-day workouts in the gym," said Ray about the past off-season. "Not necessarily going out and curling every day but definitely working on my mechanics and fine-tuning some things and kind of came up with the new delivery."
"New" is a relative term as Ray explained it was actually a return to his old form from 2012 when he was in the Washington Nationals' minor-league system.
"It just felt right. It felt like I was in a good, strong position," said Ray. "Going into spring training I saw the results almost immediately in my bullpen sessions as far as velocity and command.
"Then I just felt like I was hit the ground running and everything kind of fell into place."
Ray and cash considerations were traded to Toronto by Arizona on Aug. 31, 2020, in exchange for reliever Travis Bergen.
The 30-year-old Ray formally became a free agent on Wednesday after declining the one-year, US$18.4-million qualifying offer the Blue Jays made last week. Ray's decision was expected as he is poised to be one of the most sought-after players in free agency.
"Toronto is still in the conversation. We're still talking with Toronto on a daily basis," said Ray about turning down the Blue Jays' initial offer. "I mean, that's just kind of where we're at but we're also testing the free agent market.
"This is a fun time. This is fun for me and my family to go through this process and we're really enjoying it."
The left-handed Ray got 29 of 30 first-place votes from members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole got the other top vote and finished second and Chicago White Sox righty Lance Lynn was third.
Ray became the fifth pitcher to win the Cy Young after a season in Toronto, along with the late Roy Halladay in 2003, Roger Clemens in 1997-98 and Pat Hentgen in 1996.
"Being an elite pitcher is always on my mind," said Ray. "I know that the stuff is there, it was just a matter of putting it all together.
"The Cy Young is definitely always on the radar, it's just a matter of everything falling together in place, the mental and the physical side of it."
Milwaukee Brewers ace Corbin Burnes won the National League Cy Young later Wednesday, beating out Max Scherzer of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Zack Wheeler of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Blue Jays infielders Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Marcus Semien are finalists for the American League MVP with Los Angeles Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani. That award will be announced Thursday night.
The 22-year-old Guerrero had a .311 batting average with 111 runs batted in and 48 home runs, which was tied for first in the AL.
Like Ray, Semien officially became a free agent on Wednesday as he also declined Toronto's initial contract offer. Signed last off-season on a one-year deal, Semien played every game for the Blue Jays, hitting .265 with 102 RBIs and his 45 home runs set a single-season record for a second baseman.
"The players, the guys in the clubhouse, they're a great group of guys," said Ray. "We had a lot of fun this year and we enjoyed every minute together in the clubhouse.
"You know, texting the guys today after I won the award and they were all congratulating me. They just genuinely care about you."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2021.
John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press