Cerebral approach for Ray could pay off come Draft day

Cerebral approach for Ray could pay off come Draft day

DURHAM, N.C. -- Corey Ray is among the Draft's top hitting prospects for what he can do at the plate and on the basepaths, but it's what he writes inside a 5-by-8 black notebook that has helped him maximize his talent on the field.

Walking from the locker room to the bus following a loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament, the Louisville outfielder carries an equipment bag slung over his left shoulder, the black book in his left hand. It contains his observations from what just happened on the field, an in-game journal of sorts that he uses to record what he's seeing at the plate and how he's being pitched to. The exercise has paid dividends.

"A key at-bat I remember is last weekend we're playing Wake Forest and I get jammed on a fastball, and I write in my book, 'will come in.' And the first pitch of the next at-bat was a fastball in, and I ended up hitting it out of the park," Ray recalled. "[The book] just helps me adjust to the way I'm being pitched."

With five tools projecting to average or better, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound junior from the South Side of Chicago has the ability to hit at the top of an order and play center field at the next level. But it's his cerebral approach to the game -- his penchant for making adjustments -- that gets overlooked in light of his physical talent.

Ray has significantly improved his approach at the plate since he first arrived at Louisville, which he chose over pro ball after he was selected by the Mariners out of Simeon Career Academy in the 33rd round of the 2013 Draft. The first sign of progress came after his freshman year in which he struck out in 26 percent of his plate appearances, then whiffing 35 percent of the time the following summer in the Cape Cod League. As a sophomore, he cut that rate down to 20 percent. This season, he's been called out on strikes just 13 percent of the time.

"As a freshman, everything is moving so fast, and I'm trying to hit the ball over the fence with every swing of every at-bat," Ray said. "Now I'm taking what the pitchers give me and letting the ball travel. If he throws me away, I hit it to left, if he throws me in, I have a chance to hit the ball out of the ballpark. I'm just letting my hands work and trusting my ability."

Ray pairs a fast bat with a line-drive swing path, a combination that's helped him slash .320/.396/.575 with 15 home runs in 282 plate appearances so far this season. He's done further damage on the basepaths, using plus speed to swipe 39 bags in 46 attempts. As he grows more adept at identifying which pitches he can drive, the next step in his offensive development will be learning to use more of the entire field.

"He's got bat speed, but there's some length to it, which gets him beat inside, which is why you see so much contact to the pull side," a National League scout said. "Breaking balls in are going to give him trouble because he likes to extend his arms. He bars out that arm and gets lengthy, which gets him hammered inside pretty good."

Ray is anticipating the challenges that pro ball will bring with the help of another Chicago product, who also happens to be a very close comparison from a tools perspective: New York Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson. Ray met the veteran big leaguer last winter during Louisville's Christmas break, and the two have kept up with each other since.

"[Granderson has taught me] how to be a professional, how to go about the game and how to deal with failure," Ray said. "Also, how to approach at-bats when you're not feeling well, when you're feeling well, what to do, what you should think and also how to handle all the pressure that playing at a program like this brings."

Three years ago, Ray nearly chose a path that would have forced him to handle a different kind of pressure. He wanted to play pro ball when he was drafted out of high school in 2013, but his father didn't believe it was time yet. "Education is big in my family, and [my father] wanted me to get my education and get better -- not just physically in baseball, but also mentally, dealing with playing every day and being on my own," he said.

Now with the Draft fast approaching, Ray will soon hear his name called again, this time much earlier than it was three years ago. If he lands inside the top 10 picks as he's currently projected to, he'll become the highest-drafted player in Louisville history. He'll then have the opportunity to take the next step in his career, one headed in the direction of a Minor League bus, black book in hand.

Jesse Burkhart is a contributer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.