Blake Snell has taken his game to a new level this year
Coming into the season, expectations were as low for the Tampa Bay Rays as they’ve been in years. In the span of one offseason, face of the franchise Evan Longoria was traded to the San Francisco Giants, Logan Morrison (team-leading 38 HR and .868 OPS in 2017) and Jake Odorizzi (10-8, 4.14 ERA) found their way to the Minnesota Twins, All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson was DFA’s and ended up as a Pirate at the same time Team MVP and fellow outfielder Steve Souza Jr. and his 30 home runs were sent to the Diamondbacks, and set-up man Tommy Hunter (bullpen leading 1.3 WAR) moved on to Philadelphia. Additionally, after a lengthy holdout, veteran righty Alex Cobb (12-10, 3.66 ERA in 2017) left in free agency and moved on from the Rays after eight seasons to their division rivals, the Baltimore Orioles, and his replacement in the rotation, consensus Top-15 prospect in baseball Brent Honeywell, tore his UCL, requiring Tommy John Surgery that would cost him all of 2017, and the start of 2018 as well.
Yet despite a disastrous offseason and the in-season trades of All-Star closer Alex Colome and ace Chris Archer the Rays are currently ten games over .500 at 73-63, on pace to win 87 games after winning 80 a season ago. While one person can’t be credited with the Rays remarkable outplaying of expectations (except maybe for manager Kevin Cash, who has proven himself to be one of the game’s most innovative minds for the adoption of “the opener” this season) it is time that first-time All-Star Blake Snell starts to get the love he deserves, especially as he marches towards what could be a first-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting.
The Rays first-round pick out of Shoreline High School (Shoreline, WA) in 2011, Snell’s rise hasn’t come out of nowhere, as he was Baseball America’s #12 prospect heading into the 2016 season. In his first two years in the majors in 2016-2017, Snell was solid, going 11-15 with a 3.83 ERA, 3.87 FIP, and 8.9 K/9 in 43 games. However, control was a major issue early on for the left-hander, with 110 BB in 218.1 IP (4.5 BB/9), which caused his WHIP to balloon to 1.447.
With Snell’s stuff never in question, the potential to make the jump forward was certainly there with more control, which he has been able to do this season. Although still not particularly low, Snell’s 3.2 BB/9 represent a career-best by 0.9 BB/9 and coincided with a boost in strikeouts with a new high-watermark of 10.5 K/9. Below is a scouting report from Brooks Baseball detailing how Snell has successfully mixed-up his four pitches this season.
Blake Snell has thrown 6,432 pitches that have been tracked by the PITCHf/x system between 2015 and 2018, all of them occurring in the MLB Regular Season. In 2018, he has relied primarily on his Fourseam Fastball (96mph), also mixing a Change (89mph), Curve (82mph) and Slider (89mph). His four-seam fastball is thrown at a speed that’s borderline unfair, has much less armside movement than typical, generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ four-seamers and has some added backspin. His change is thrown extremely hard and has a lot of backspin. His curve is thrown extremely hard, generates an extremely high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ curves and has a sharp downward bite. His slider is thrown extremely hard and generates a high number of swings & misses compared to other pitchers’ sliders.
In the first half of the season, Snell quietly dominated the American League with a 12-5 record, 2.27 ERA (3rd in the AL), 1.067 WHIP, and 134 K (8th in the AL) in 119.0 IP (10.1 K/9). Yet despite his success, he watched as he was left off the initial American League All-Star roster, only making it on to the roster as an injury replacement for Corey Kluber even though his 2.09 ERA led the AL at the time the rosters were announced. As a follow-up to his All-Star selection, Snell has been even better for the Rays in the second half, going 5-0 in six starts with a 1.10 ERA (4 ER in 32.2 IP) 0.796 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, and perhaps most importantly to Snell, a 6.14 K:BB ratio.
Since he does play for the Tampa Bay Rays, Snell isn’t yet a household name, as evident by his initial All-Star snub this season. But as the MLB season turns to its final month, Snell has found himself in the thick of the AL Cy Young race, particularly as Chris Sale and Trevor Bauer work to return from injuries. On the surface, Snell’s statistical case for the Cy Young Award is simple; he is leading the league in wins with 17, is second in the AL in WAR for Pitchers (5.8) ERA (2.02) and Hits/9 (5.875), 3rd in winning % at .773, 4th in WHIP at 1.009, 5th in HR/9 at 0.831, and 7th in K/9 with 10.503, good for 177 strikeouts overall. For the season, opponents are hitting .186/.261/.319 in 592 plate appearances against Snell.
Digging deeper into the numbers is where Snell’s award case becomes even more compelling. Snell has yet to have a month where his ERA crept of 2.52, with monthly ERA’s of 2.52 in March/April, 2.60 in May, 1.74 in June, 2.04 in July, and 1.04 in August. In his four no-decisions this season, Snell has been dominant, with a 1.21 ERA, 0.806 WHIP, and 4.20 K:BB in 22.1 IP; had these games swung in Snell’s favor, he’d already be at 21 wins with a month of the season left to go. Perhaps most importantly for the Rays, Snell has been successful at home and on the road, going a microscopic 8-1 with a 1.06 ERA and 0.872 WHIP in Tampa, but maintaining a strong 2.79 ERA, 1.119 WHIP, and 11.1 K/9 on the road. According to Baseball-Reference, opponents have hit .105/.181/.174 against Snell in high leverage situations, including .063/.224/.146 with runners in scoring position. And while baseball begins to pull pitchers before letting them face a team for a third time through the order, Snell has held hitters to a .224/.295/.414 mark when facing them for the time in a game.
Overall, the biggest piece of Snell’s Cy Young candidacy is his ability to rise to the occasion against stronger opponents. Against teams with a winning percentage of .500+, Snell is 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA, 1.008 WHIP, and 10.4 K/9 in 83.1 IP, including a 3-0 record and 1.08 ERA against the AL East-leading Red Sox, and 2-0 record and 1.26 ERA against the AL West-leading Houston Astros. Below is a snapshot of some of Snell’s appearances against teams with a winning record this season.
March 30th vs. Boston, ND: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 2BB, 2K
April 27th @ Boston, W: 7.1 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9K
May 8th vs. Atlanta, L: 6.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 2 B, 5 K
May 24th vs. Boston, W: 6.0 IP, 3 HR, 0 ER, 2 BB, 8 K
May 29th @ Oakland, W: 5.2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 7K
June 3rd @ Seattle, ND: 6.0 IP, 2 HR, 0 ER, 0 BB, 12 K
June 9th vs. Seattle, W: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
June 19th vs. Houston, W: 7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 4 BB, 10 K
July 1st vs. Houston, W: 7.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 10 K
August 16th @ NYY, W: 5 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K
August 26th vs. Boston, W: 6 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 2 B, 8 K
September 1st vs. Cleveland, W: 6.2 IP, 8 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 9 K
As of today, the Rays have 73 wins; Snell has been on the hill of almost ¼ of them at 23.29%, which outlines just how valuable he has been to the team this season. Coming into a season where the franchise faced more uncertainty then they have since dropping the “Devil” in their name, not only have the Rays found their ace of the future in Blake Snell, but they just may have their second Cy Young trophy by season’s end as well.