For starters, let's acknowledge what we all already know. The Astros are not brimming with talent in their lineup. They have 4-A players littered throughout, and it makes one wonder why they were willing to give up so quickly on J.D. Martinez - not that Martinez looks like a world beater, but he sure doesn't look half bad compared to some of the guys Houston trots out.
To the basics; Robbie Ray threw 86 pitches, 55 for strikes as he lasted 5 1/3 innings, allowing one run while scattering five hits and a walk, striking out five. He got off to a bit of a rocky start, allowing a bloop double and then an infield single to start off with runners on the corners and nobody out. But Ray responded calmly and worked himself out of the jam, eventually getting to a point where he retired ten Astros in a row.
The lone run he allowed came in the sixth, after allowing singles to Dexter Fowler and Jason Castro to put runners on the corners with nobody out, Chris Carter hit a sky-high pop up that Ian Kinsler took his eye off of at the last minute and dropped it. Fowler walked home from third, and Evan Reed came on to replace Ray, inducing an inning-ending double play on the first pitch he threw to solidify Ray's line.
So, one run in his major league debut has to be viewed as a positive, right? Yes, and no. Obviously you hope for and got a successful start – this should provide a confidence booster for Ray, even if he only makes one more big league start before returning to Toledo.
What else went right?
For starters, his fastball was very good. Of his 86 pitches, 48 were fastballs, and 36 went for strikes. He controlled the pitch well, working both sides of the plate, and didn't frequently miss his spot. The pitch sat 91-92 MPH for most of the game (more likely 92-93, as the Comerica Park radar gun has been about one MPH slow this season), touched 95 once, and rarely gave up solid contact on the pitch.
In addition, he mixed in his changeup very well, as it was his predominant off-speed pitch in Tuesday's start. Multiple times, he was able to utilize the pitch after setting a hitter up with a fastball and coming back with the change, or vice versa. Of the ten swinging strikes he got, eight were on changeup/fastball or fastball/changeup combos. The speed variance was working well for him, as was the location of the change.
Finally, Ray looked calm and poised on the mound. Despite a couple bad breaks in the first inning, Ray didn't panic and worked himself out of the jam, making good pitches as opposed to just pulling back and trying to blow hitters away with a harder fastball out over the plate. Despite being 22 years old, and with just five starts above Double-A, the moment wasn't too big for Ray.
On the downside, the outing also showed how much room he still has to grow as a pitcher.
The biggest opportunity for improvement was Ray's curveball. Coming in at a velocity in the mid-70's, he threw the pitch only 11 times, and seven of those went for balls. With the exception of one very good back-door curve that got an Astro looking, the pitch was little more than a show-me pitch to keep hitters off the fastball/changeup combination. In his postgame press conference, he did state that he felt he got a better feel for the pitch as the game went on, but it still wasn't frequently used in the latter innings of his start, and the scouting reports out of Toledo also indicate it's not a go-to pitch for him now.
That sort of thing can work fine when your other two pitches are outstanding, or when the other team doesn't have a comprehensive scouting report on the pitcher yet, but as a starting pitcher, it's tough to get by with just two pitches. With a full game to watch for evaluation, it's likely in his next start (expected to be this Sunday at home against Minnesota), teams will have a better understanding of what he has (and doesn't have).
The inconsistency in the pitch isn't unusual or new – it's been an area of opportunity for Ray for some time now, and given how good his fastball has been in Toledo, he hasn't had to rely on it extensively or be forced to build that consistency with the pitch. But, it's a clear area where he needs to improve to fulfill his potential as a middle of the rotation starter.
The other area of concern for Ray was that despite only being at 76 pitches through five innings, when he came out for the sixth inning, he was not as sharp or throwing with the same velocity that he had in the first five innings. His fastball was sitting at 89, even with the correction for the Comerica Park gun, still below where he typically is, and unlike a couple of the hits he allowed, the two singles given up in the sixth were both well struck. In the postgame, manager Brad Ausmus even mentioned that Ray look tired, which expedited his exit from the game.
A player's big league debut can be emotionally exhausting, and the nerves and tension that comes with such a game can certainly wear on a player, so this could simply be the result of that. In addition, Ray's last full start only went 89 pitches, with a one inning outing inbetween, and being early in the year, arm strength isn't necessarily all the way established. However, losing velocity only 75 pitches into a game is never a great sign.
Overall, the start gave Tigers fans exactly what they probably needed to see – some clear signs that the Doug Fister trade wasn't a complete loss, and that the key centerpiece of the deal has a bright future.
But, for however bright his future is, Ray still has quite a bit of work to do. He'll need that curveball to become a pitch he can grip and throw in any situation, he'll need to continue to refine the command of his impressive fastball/changeup combo, and he'll need to show he has the arm strength to handle a traditional starter workload.
All in all though, Ray couldn't have asked for much better results or outcome in his big league debut.