Robbie Ray on a contract year might be a blessing for the DBacks’ pursuit of reaching their ultimate goal

With the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Starling Marte & Kole Calhoun being added to an Arizona Diamondbacks roster that finished over .500 last year for the third straight season while in a “rebuild” under fan favorite GM Mike Hazen – only the second such instance that has happened in franchise history (5 straight from ’99-’03) – the team from the desert looks poised to make that four in a row as they continue to try and topple the Los Angeles Dodgers from atop the National League West.

But, the hopes of bringing home an NL West title for the 1st time since 2011 might lie with the underachieving left-arm of one of their own.

In what very well might be his final season as a Diamondback, 28-year-old lefty Robbie Ray enters his most important season professionally to date, and that might not be such a bad thing for an organization and fans alike who are hoping for a return to the playoffs for the first since 2017. Which, coincidentally enough, is the same year that Ray made his lone All-Star appearance to go with his career best Earned Run Average (ERA=2.89; 5th best SP in MLB) and Walks + Hits/Innings Pitched (WHIP=1.15; 12th best SP), while also holding opponents batting averages to a combined .197, which was third best in the majors. All the while having the worst Walk% by any MLB starter.

Since that All-Star campaign though, Robbie Ray has – for lack of a better word – struggled, as he saw his ERA jump to 3.93 in 2018 and spike once again in ’19 to the tune of 4.34. Neither season came with a WHIP below 1.34 – both comfortably put him near the bottom of the starting pitcher ranks.

While he did set a career-high in strikeouts in 2019, with 235, Ray still recorded only 7 total outs after the 6th inning, which is nearly double the amount (4) of outs he had in that situation in 2018. He recorded 36 outs after the 6th inning in 2017 alone.

Only 11 of the 33 starts for the impending free agent last season were good enough to be labeled as “quality” – at least 6 innings and no more than 3 earned runs. In fact, between 2018-’19 Robbie had a total of 18 quality starts in 57 outings. Which is only two more than the 16 he recorded over his 28 starts during that elite season of 2017.

Although it might seem inconceivable for some to believe that we’ll ever see the gold standard of Robbie Ray appear once again after multiple sub-par seasons, especially since his average fastball had diminished from 94.4 MPH in 2017 to 92.7 last season, enter the sports phenomena where recent underachievers live up to expectations and then some during their final year under contract. Or, also known as ”contract year.”

While there’s countless examples, Dback fans don’t have to look any further than old friend Patrick Corbin to find an underachiever who ended up wildly surpassing expectations with a new contract looming.

In 2016, Corbin was one of the very worst starting pitchers in MLB when he posted a 5.15 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP. He was better in 2017 but still had an ERA just above 4 to go with a WHIP above 1.4. Then, during his own contract year of 2018, Patrick Corbin spun the best baseball of his career with a 3.15 ERA and 1.05 WHIP – career bests by a fairly wide margin prior to last season. He parlayed that excellent ’18 season into a 6-Yr/$140M payday with the Washington Nationals.

Exactly the footsteps that the current D’backs lefty is hoping to follow.

While he’s openly admitted that he’s in “kind of a tough situation,” Robbie isn’t oblivious to his unique situation either. “I, honestly, need to pitch this year. I think there’s going to be money out there for guys,” he told Arizona Republic’s Nick Piecoro.

He also went on to say that he’s “never felt better,” and that showed with his supreme dominance in camp and during intrasquad scrimmages where he flashed a 2017 Robbie Ray esk fastball between 94-95 while topping out at 97 MPH when he went 11 innings while giving up just one hit en route to striking out 17 and walking only 3 batters over 2 starts.

With an Ace in Madison Bumgarner, who has the championship pedigree and a World Series MVP on his resumé, the fact is that he’s turning 31 next week and has seen his average fastball velocity drop from 93.0 MPH in 2015 to 91.7 in ’19 to go with a career-high 3.90 ERA last season, along with a couple young starters in Zac Gallen and Luke Weaver, who have less than 380 combined career innings, a lot will be riding on the one arm in their rotation that is still currently at his athletic peak – 28 years old – AND has been through the rigors of a pennant race chase at least once in his career in Robbie Ray.

With the Diamondbacks starting their season 0-1 after last night, the time for Ray to prove his doubters wrong starts tonight, as you don’t want to fall multiple games behind a division rival like the Padres that the Snakes will probably be fighting for a playoff spot against during an abbreviated 60-game season right out of the gates.

With recent sports history filled with plenty examples of underachievers exceeding expectations and performing to their greatest capabilities with a big payday potentially awaiting them, Dbacks fans certainly hope that Robbie Ray adds his name to that ever growing list, because at the end of the day that would a long way in the organizations pursuit of reaching their ultimate season goal.

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