PEORIA, Ariz. — This grunt was different than the ones that started echoing throughout the vast expanse of the complex from the first day he first put on a Mariners uniform.
They are the primitive, growling and guttural expulsions of intensity and purpose.
They are startling at first, a new and unexpected sound rising above the din of music and fan chatter, interrupting the otherwise laid-back vibe of morning workouts in spring training.
But this specific grunt, well, this was the product of competing against a hitter, the two-strike count and cutthroat mentality that’s made Robbie Ray one of the top strikeout pitchers in baseball and the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner.
Pitching in his first live batting practice of this shortened spring training, Ray found himself with a 2-2 count facing new teammate Eugenio Suárez. He’d shown Suárez off-speed pitches on 0-1 and 1-2 counts but didn’t get swings on the pitches out of the zone.
There would be none of that this time. Power hitter? Meet power fastball.
Ray went into his windup that features a small step from a wide stance with his right foot, swiveling his hip to lift that right knee to his left shoulder, despite his trademark tight pants. In this process, he loads his hips so much that his entire back, including his No. 38, is all the hitter sees. It’s followed by an uncoiling down the mound with the left hand holding the baseball last in the movement.
As Ray unleashed a blazing fastball intended for the top of the strike zone, he let out a louder and more ferocious grunt than previous pitches. The ball rocketed past Suárez, who took a vicious hack but had no chance at contact.
In the dugout, a few “woos” were uttered by watching hitters and a devious smirk appeared on the face of manager Scott Servais as if to say, “He’s ours and not yours.”
Since arriving to camp on Friday, Ray has wowed teammates and staff with his ardor and seriousness in every aspect of baseball.
“We need a few more psychos on this team,” said one player. “It’s a good thing.”
Servais experienced it immediately in Ray’s first bullpen session the afternoon he reported. Ray stalked the mound and tossed 25-plus pitches, grunting, sweating, expelling maximum effort and acting as if each pitch was determining the World Series.
Ray looked dominant in his “two-inning” live batting practice session. He didn’t give up any hard contact, got whiffs on his slider and broke at least two bats.
“It’s a different level of intensity,” Servais said. “It’s something that we’ve probably never seen around here. He is all business. Every throw he makes on the field and not just when he’s on the mound, you watch his catch-play, you watch what he’s doing all the time, everything has a purpose. And he takes it very seriously.”
On Monday afternoon, Ray threw a 50-pitch bullpen with the same effort level — every pitch was thrown will full intent, every miss generated visible irritation, every second on the mound had complete focus.
The grunts and subsequent pops of the ball hitting the catcher’s glove plus Ray’s reputation drew a crowd to the bullpen area. All the starting pitchers crowded near the mounds, several relievers stood nearby, and dozens of minor leaguers waiting to start the afternoon practice watched intently. Curiosity turning into a self-examination of their own effort and focus.
“When you talk about your environment and your culture, I’ve always said players drive it,” Servais said. “With some guys, it’s their personality. With some guys, it’s their work ethic. I always think actions speak louder than words. When you’re watching a guy take his bullpen that seriously and is coming off the season he just had, it might resonate with a few people. Players want to learn. They’re not stupid. How’s this guy do it? What does he do when he’s on the mound? Some of it might rub off.”
Tom Murphy, who could probably match Ray in terms of individual intensity, found a kindred spirit as he caught that second bullpen.
“It was intense to say the least,” Murphy said. “You can tell that he’s all business. I think that’s really important for our young guys to see that. You have to come out here and be everything you can be every day you’re out here. This guy is coming off a Cy Young and he’s out here in the bullpen, grunting and doing those things. He’s just preparing. And when you do that, and when you put everything you can into it, that’s what it should look like.”
On his final pitch of that bullpen session, Ray let out a grunt as he fired a perfect fastball at the top of the zone. As Murphy caught the ball, he mimicked Ray’s grunt, holding the pitch for a moment. It drew chuckles from those watching and Ray’s first smile since he’d come on the field.
“I love catching guys like that, guys that never have to try to get up to do more,” Murphy said. “Those are my dream, obviously. We just go out there and we can really focus on competing because I know he’s going to give me everything he’s got.”
Of course, none of this seems special or unique to Ray. This is how he prepares.
“I just try to throw every pitch with the purpose, every pitch with the intent behind it,” Ray said. “I’m not just out there throwing just to throw. I definitely take it seriously because it’s the only time we really have to work on our craft.”
There was a time early in his career where Ray didn’t have that same sort of commitment to each bullpen or each pitch in it. But with maturity and fighting through inconsistencies with his mechanics and subsequently his command, he realized this is how he needed to prepare.
“It’s just gotten better over the years as far as being able to focus and actually put the work in,” he said.
And the grunting? Because, well, everyone wants to know about where the grunting came from. Is it for breathing? Has he always done it?
“It’s just a way for me to just kind of put everything in every single pitch, but it also I think helps keep everything tight as far as you know diaphragm and everything in place,” Ray said.
If Ray can give the Mariners a performance similar to his Cy Young season in 2021 with the Blue Jays, where he posted a 13-7 record with a 2.84 ERA in 32 starts and 248 strikeouts and only 52 walks in 193 1/3 innings, Mariners fans will be grunting with him on every pitch at T-Mobile Park and perhaps into the postseason.
There might need to be one more aspect to Ray’s preparation for 2022 and key to his success.
“His pants were a little bit tighter last year,” Murphy joked about Ray’s trademark look. “I don’t know what happened there, but hopefully he kind of makes the adjustments on pant fitting day.”