Baseball people were surprised when the Detroit Tigers made a trade with Washington in early December that sent pitcher Doug Fister to the Nationals for three young players.
The trade also was a shock to one of the players Detroit acquired, pitcher Robbie Ray.
“I honestly didn’t think I was going to get traded,” he said. “I think every guy’s ambition is to reach the big leagues with the team that drafts them, and I felt the same thing.”
The pressure was ratcheted up a notch when the Tigers made it clear that Ray, a 22-year-old left-hander from Tennessee, was the key to the deal.
If that is not enough pressure, this season Fister has posted a 10-3 record with a 2.68 ERA that would rank among the National League leaders if the veteran right-hander had enough innings to qualify for consideration.
“You can look at a trade two ways,” Mud Hens manager Larry Parrish said. “One is, ‘The team really likes me, so they made that deal,’ and the other is, ‘They made a big trade to get me, so they’re expecting me to do this or that,’ and you start pressing, trying to do more.
“A player can get comfortable in their environment. Suddenly they are in a new city with new teammates, and they are expected [to do big things].”
The good news, for both the Hens and Tigers, is that Ray has handled all that pressure well, posting a 7-5 record and 3.72 ERA in 19 games for Toledo.
Ray said he did not — and will not — compare himself and his numbers to Fister.
“He’s an established pitcher in the big leagues, and I’m an up-and-coming pitcher who still is working on stuff,” Ray said. “If you do that, you’re always going to fail.”
Ray said he realized things were going to be different the moment he arrived at spring training — and was in the major league clubhouse, not the one used by the minor leaguers.
“It was my first big-league camp, and you’re instantly in a lockerroom with guys who are Cy Young winners, MVPs, a Triple-Crown winner,” he said. “You kind of sit in your locker and wait for someone to talk to.”
The first player with which Ray began to develop a connection was another Tigers newcomer.
“Joe Nathan and I had the Tennessee thing going,” Ray said. “We had a mutual friend in Nashville, so it was easy to make a connection.
“But once you’re around guys and things start going, everybody loosened up. It was a great atmosphere.”
Despite beginning the season with Toledo as one of the youngest players in the International League, Ray got off to a strong start. He posted a deceiving 3-2 record and a 1.53 ERA that better indicated how well he was throwing.
The hard-throwing southpaw put together a string of 17 1/3 scoreless innings to earn a promotion to Detroit in early May.
He won his first major-league start when he beat Houston on May 6, but when the Tigers rotation returned to full strength he was optioned back to the Mud Hens with orders to improve his breaking pitches.
From that point Ray’s season has had its ups and downs. He posted a 4.00 ERA in June but was cuffed around in July and had a 6.00 ERA for the month.
In his last four starts Ray has moved away from throwing a curveball, which seemed to affect his stride and arm angle — and thus affect his other pitches — and is working on sharpening a slider.
He has allowed two runs or less in three of four starts.
“Going from a slider to working on a curveball in the spring, then switching back to the slider in the middle of the season, that’s been a work in progress,” Ray said. “I’m working to stay consistent, especially with my arm slot.
“I’ve had some trials here and there, but I think I’ve been able to keep my team in games.”
No matter how this season ends, the young left-hander said he has learned some valuable lessons since the trade.
“I am learning who I am as a pitcher,” Ray said. “I’ve learned how to stay in the same arm slot, even when I’m tired and it’s late in the game. I’ve learned to repeat my delivery more.
“And I’ve learned to be consistent rather than try to be overpowering, just to try and add a mile-per-hour to a pitch.”