Blue Jays: Robbie Ray seems to have mastered his old control problems

Robbie Ray, the league’s worst pitcher in 2020 at finding the strike zone, has suddenly become a strike-throwing machine over his last two games.

The Beatles had Lennon and McCartney. Broadway had Rodgers and Hammerstein. Gotham had Batman and Robin. And the 2021 Toronto Blue Jays have Robbie Ray and Alejandro Kirk.

Sometimes, in sports as in life, a partnership is formed that brings out the best in both parts, that combines their individual talents into something that’s much greater. Such is the case with Ray and Kirk so far this season.

Kirk, the Blue Jays stocky yet stout catcher, has been behind the plate for all four of Ray’s starts in 2021. The results have been magical. On Friday in Dunedin, against an Atlanta Braves lineup that leads the league in home runs and scores more than 4.6 runs per game, Ray shut them down. He took a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning, striking out five before the Braves finally got to him on Ozzie Albies’ two-run home run.

Most importantly, at least for Ray, he didn’t walk a batter. Control has never been Ray’s strong suit; last season, his 7.84 walks per nine innings were the worst in the Majors and would’ve been the highest in a full season by a qualified starter since 1949. He walked nine batters over his first eight innings this season.

But, over his last two starts, Ray has turned finding the strike zone into an art form. He hasn’t issued a walk in 14.2 consecutive innings dating back to April 18. In his last two appearances, 71% of his pitches have been strikes; in 2020, just 57% of his pitches were in the strike zone.

Together with Kirk, Ray is throwing his fastball more often and finding success with it. His fastball usage has gone up from 47% in 2020 to more than 60% this season. He’s increased his velocity by nearly two mph. Against the Braves, 65 of his 95 pitches were fastballs that hit as high as 98 mph. All of his five strikeouts came on the pitch, including three looking as opposing batters always have to be cognizant of his breaking balls.

The Blue Jays won the game 13-5, giving Ray his first victory of the season to go with his 2.78 ERA.

“Man, he’s throwing nothing but strikes,” manager Charlie Montoyo said about his left-hander after the game. “He’s got good stuff, and if he’s around the zone, he’s going to get people out. And that’s what he did again today, threw strikes with all his pitches and gave us a chance. He was outstanding.”

Ray hasn’t had a streak of pitching at least six innings without walking a batter in two consecutive starts since May 2017. Before last Saturday, he had issued at least one walk in all but two of his last 51 starts in which he went five innings or more dating back to 2018. No Blue Jays starter has pitched six innings without a walk in back-to-back starts since J.A. Happ in April 2018.

Ray wouldn’t have figured to be the next, not with his propensity to miss the strike zone. But he’s looked like a different pitcher in his last two games, pounding the zone with fastballs and getting batters to chase his sliders and changeups. The result: Ray is now a fixture in the Blue Jays rotation, a quality starter that gives the Blue Jays a chance to win every time he takes the pound.

His battery mate also had himself a good day on Friday, as Kirk recorded his first career multi-homer game. The partnership between the two of them is flourishing, and the Blue Jays have to hope Ray and Kirk continue to make sweet music together.