When the Milwaukee Brewers made Corey Ray the fifth overall selection in the 2016 MLB draft, lofty expectations followed.
He was the highest draft pick for the organization since taking Ryan Braun, the team's all-time leader in homers, in the same spot in 2005.
It was Ray's impressive display of speed and power at Louisville that gave fans reason to believe he'd be a nice — and relatively quick — addition to the outfield in Milwaukee. As a junior at Louisville, he hit .310 with 15 homers and 60 RBIs. On the base paths, he was perfect in all 44 stolen base attempts.
However, the numbers at the plate weren't there for Ray in his first two years in the Brewers system. He hit .247 with five homers for the Single-A (Advanced) Brevard County Manatees in 2016. In 2017 at Carolina, he hit .238 with seven homers and 48 RBIs.
The numbers in 2017 were skewed due to a torn meniscus he suffered during a 2016 stint in the Arizona Fall League.
In 2018, Ray's power numbers have made a significant jump at Double-A Biloxi.
He has nine homers, 19 doubles, four triples and 30 RBIs through the first 62 games of the season. His batting average stands at .259 with an on-base percentage of .358.
While you can chalk up Ray's improved production to the fact that he's fully healthy, you can't count out the idea that he's playing for something bigger than baseball.
His daughter, Cori, born on November 28.
With a wide-eyed expression on her face, Cori recently sat on a table in the Biloxi Shuckers' locker room as Ray discussed a new outlook on life that has come with his first child.
“You go 0-for and you come home to her and there's no way you can be mad or think about it,” Ray said with a proud grin. “She's always giggly, laughing and trying to get into stuff.”
If his daughter doesn't tag along on road trips, he often uses FaceTime to watch her fall asleep.
“Seeing her born and just her presence reminds me that I've got to go hard because I've got someone to do it for,” Ray said. “She eats from me. It's a great motivator.”
Ray also points to a more consistent routine as a major reason for his improved play this season, following the advice of fellow Chicago native Curtis Granderson — a Blue Jays outfielder in his 17th season in the majors.
Ray arrives at the ballpark at 11:30 a.m. each day. He then hits the batting cage, lifts weights, eats lunch and then comes back for batting practice.
“If you're using a routine to prepare for a game, whatever happens in the game is what happens in the game,” Ray said. “As long as you do a routine and get in everything to be prepared, you'll be ready.”
A year ago, Ray felt that he was trying to make too many changes throughout the course of the season to compensate for his struggles.
“I would try to tweak as much as I can depending on how it was going,” he said. “This year, I'm sticking to routine. I'm not thinking mechanics at the plate. Whatever happens, happens.”
In Granderson, Ray sees a mentor and the type of major leaguer he'd like to become.
“He's had a great career and he's a great guy,” Ray said. “He's known more for what he does off the field than what he's done on the field. He's had a pretty good baseball career and that's a testament of what type of guy he is. I would love to follow in his footsteps.”
Avoiding the roller coaster
Much like Granderson, Ray is a versatile bat that can hit in several different spots in the lineup.
His 4-for-4 day in the Shuckers' 11-4 win at Jacksonville on Sunday came out of the leadoff spot, but he can hit anywhere from the top of the order to seventh.
The left-handed Ray is feeling more at ease as a leadoff man — a role that can make him valuable to the Brewers.
“I wasn't as comfortable last year or throughout my life,” he said. “Now I'm starting to get more comfortable and learning what it takes to be a good leadoff hitter.”
Ray has done a better job of getting on base this season with a .358 on-base percentage. That figure has improved with 35 walks — just 13 off the figure he had in 112 games last year.
“For me, the focus is on-base percentage and OPS,” he said. “Batting average can be misleading. You can hit a ball on the label and get a hit. I'm worried about swinging at pitches in the strike zone and not missing the pitches I'm looking for.
“If I go 4-for-4 or 0-for-4, I ask myself, 'How many pitches did I miss today?' If that number is zero, I'm happy.”
Ray stands at .836 in OPS, which takes on-base and slugging percentages into account.
Ray's batting average has gone up and down for much of the season and he realizes that he has to become more steady there.
“I have to be more consistent,” he said. “I have a good game, good series. The next game or series, it won't be as good. I want it to be not so much of a roller coaster. That will allow me to get to .300 (in batting average).”