Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell is kind of a weirdo. He has a body that reminds you a little bit of Chris Sale. He sometimes wears his pants rolled up to his knees like a scrappy middle infielder. He wears a single-digit number, for crying out loud.
None of that really has anything to do with his ability to pitch, however. The 2015 Baseball America Player of the Year, Snell made his much-anticipated debut in the major league debut last season, with mixed results. He missed plenty of bats (24.4 percent strikeout rate), but he also missed the strike zone pretty often (12.7 percent walk rate).
After a 2015 season in which he struck out nearly a third of the hitters he faced across three levels while displaying the type of command that allows a player to be promoted that rapidly, you could argue that 2016 was a small step back. To make that argument, though, would be to sell Snell short (say that five times fast). He’s not all the way there as a no-doubt quality major leaguer starter just yet, but despite those command issues it’s clear that that type of pitcher is in there somewhere. Snell just needs to make a few adjustments to bring him out.
First, let’s start with the positives. We’ve already laid out the fact that Snell is more than capable of missing bats. Even if he never improves his walk rate, he figures to be able to supplement that with strikeouts for the foreseeable future. At the very least, that creates a decent floor.
Beyond that, though, he already has a pair of quality major-league pitches. It’s probably at least one less than you would like to see him have, but again, it’s not a bad start.
Another positive indicator is the fact that those two pitches are secondaries: curveball and changeup. For a guy who already throws in the mid-90s, the fact that his fastball needs further work is probably a better sign than if he had a killer heater, and only one solid secondary. He could succeed either way, but honing his command with the fastball is probably an easier thing to develop than having to learn a breaking ball or changeup. That’s the theory, at least.
Anyway, let’s talk about those two pitches. First off, they both have some outstanding movement:
Both the curveball and changeup ranked right near the top of the league in terms of vertical movement, according to Baseball Prospectus — the former had a ton of rise, while the latter featured incredible drop. Thanks to that movement, each garnered whiffs on about 30 percent of swings. Here is an example of each pitch to give you a better idea of why they’re effective:
That curveball is especially nasty, but you can see why both those pitches were clear net positives for Snell in his debut. Batters hit just .043 against the curve, and .215 against the changeup.
Of course, the issue with just about any secondary pitch is the reality that it’s generally most effective when the pitcher is ahead in the count. So you can see why, for a guy like Snell, that would be an issue: Since he struggled to throw strikes, he was seldom in such counts.
That stems from the issues Snell has in commanding his fastball. Just a little over 60 percent of the fastballs Snell threw in 2016 were either in the zone or pitches the batter made an attempt at. That was about five percent less than the league average for all pitchers. The difference is presumably even higher when narrowing it down to just starters.
Snell clearly likes to work with the fastball up in the zone, but that hurts him in multiple ways. One, as we’ve covered and as you can see in that chart, is command. The other is a susceptibility to being hit hard.
This is the point where we need to start projecting a bit, because if you go and look at the average exit velocity against Snell’s fastball in 2016 and compare it to the league average, you’ll notice that he actually didn’t fare too poorly. However, there are few reasons to believe this will continue, not just for all of Snell’s pitches, but especially for the fastball, considering where Snell likes to throw it.
There are two major points to look at when trying to figure out if Snell is going to be hit harder on contact in 2017: line drive rate, and home run to fly ball ratio. Both, in 2016, were far enough away from the median that there’s reason for concern.
First, as our sister site DRaysBay pointed out earlier this offseason, Snell had an incredibly high line-drive rate in 2016. It will be the highest of any returning pitcher in 2017. And yet, Snell’s ERA and FIP looked pretty good. So if he’s allowing a bunch of line drives, but not getting a lot of run charged to him, where’s that discrepancy coming from?
The answer, presumably, is his (probably) unsustainable home run to fly ball ratio, as you surely saw coming. Less than six percent of the fly balls Snell allowed last season cleared the fence, a number so low that only Chris Devenski and Rich Hill surpassed it. It’s very, very difficult to envision Snell continuing to get away with that, especially if he’s going to live near the top of the zone with his fastball. Even if he throw 96, that’s probably something that’s going to come back to bite him at some point.
Snell also throws another pitch, a slider, that we haven’t even mentioned yet. Despite garnering a whiff on over half of the swings against the pitch, batters crushed Snell’s slider when they did make contact last season. Exactly half of the balls in play for Snell’s slider were line drives, according to PITCHf/x. The outcomes for the pitch are, obviously, extreme, and it may serve Snell well to throw it less in the future.
The key to whether Snell ultimately figures it out is one of command, as it is for just about any young pitcher. He probably has further to go in that department than your average second-year starter, but if he does figure it out, the stuff is so good that his ceiling is at or near ace-level. The changeup and curveball are already dominant, so all he needs to do is work on the heat (and maybe phase out that slider). At 24, he has plenty of time to get there.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.