Blake Snell Leaves Them Wanting More

The first pitch Blake Snell ever threw as an American League All-Star ended up in the left-field bleachers. I assume he had other plans.

That this might, for some, represent an enduring image of Snell’s All-Star experience is a bit of a shame, because most of the pitches he threw last Tuesday night were actually pretty good. In his first inning of work, he got Javy Báez to reach out on a letter-high fastball and bounce the ball back to the mound; he walked Paul Goldschmidt on a borderline 3-2 fastball; he struck out Nolan Arenado with a gorgeous curveball on the fourth pitch of the sequence; and he retired Freddie Freeman via ground out. In his second inning, he struck out Matt Kemp and Bryce Harper consecutively before losing Nick Markakis, of all people, on a 3-1 fastball that missed badly. He was pulled after that in favor of Joe Jiménez. All in all, though, not bad for a 25-year-old.

In fact, of the 39 pitches Snell threw on Tuesday, just one — the one Willson Contreras deposited into the left-field seats — was hit in the air at all. The rest were either taken or, in the cases of Báez and Freeman, hit into the ground. I want to fixate on this for a moment because I think it’s at least somewhat relevant to Snell’s breakout 2018, in which he’s finally managed to pitch ahead of his peripherals (and up to his potential) to the tune of a nifty 2.27 ERA in 119 big-league innings. After long being part of the future for Tampa Bay, Snell is now firmly part of the club’s present and has established himself — albeit tenuously, for the moment — a place among the top-25 or -30 starters in the game. But how?

The first reason appears to be rather straightforward: Snell, who’s always been tall and skinny, has more recently become tall and skinny and strong. That’s largely the product of a 23-year-old becoming a 25-year-old. In any case, it’s given him quite a bit more zip not only on his fastball but his secondary pitches as well:

So that’s thing number one: the velocity Snell was hitting at the end of last season, which was then a career-high, is now his norm. Velocity isn’t everything, of course — the pitch Contreras hit a long way was a 97.8 mph fastball — but it sure can help your stuff and sequencing play up, especially on the days during which, uh, you just don’t got it. Snell has been working on his conditioning, and it’s paid off for him.

Thing number two is a little more complicated and concerns Snell’s improved ability to adjust his game to the situation, especially with runners on base. As Michael Baumann noted for The Ringer  last month:

Snell has thrown 423 fastballs to right-handed batters this year, not counting pitches that have ended a plate appearance. Snell has followed those up with 107 change-ups, 100 curveballs, 39 sliders, and 177 fastballs. Even if a hitter sits on another fastball, the most common follow-up pitch, he’s got a nearly 60 percent chance of guessing wrong—and almost falling over swinging and missing.

That kind of unpredictability is facilitated by Snell’s improved command of four plus pitches, of course, but it’s also driven by the young man’s newfound willingness to get out of his own comfort zone and adapt on the fly to whatever situation presents itself. He’s not pitching by number any more. Consider for example the following chart:

Blake Snell Goes to Ground
Situation 2016-7 GB/FB 2018 GB/FB
Bases Empty 1.0 1.1
Runners On 1.0 1.3
Runners in Scoring 1.2 1.7

For the first two years of Snell’s career, he was pretty much the same pitcher with the bases empty as he was with runners in scoring position — in other words, he had a plan in his head, and he executed that plan the same regardless of the situation in which he found himself. This year, not so much. With runners on base or (especially) in scoring position, Snell suddenly becomes dramatically more likely to generate a ground ball than he would otherwise.

That approach has led to a few more walks in those situations, yes (12% with runners in scoring position versus 9% of the time with the bases empty), but that’s presumably a price Snell is willing to pay to keep the ball out of the air and therefore out of the bleachers. Learning to compromise is a sign of maturity in baseball as in life. In his third season Snell has gotten much better at understanding the range of options available to him in any given pitching situation and then executing on the pitch he feels is most appropriate to the moment. The result is that Blake Snell now has, at 86.3%, the highest strand rate in the major leagues.

One needn’t go any further than the All-Star Game to see an example of the change in Snell’s approach. After conceding the home run to Contreras, Snell retired Báez and Arenado but walked Goldschmidt. With a runner on, Snell appeared intent on pounding the low and outside portion of the zone.

 

 

The result here — as it has been throughout much of the season with runners on base — was a weak ground ball and the end of the National League’s threat. As with most other teams he’s faced this year, Snell left his opponent wanting more.

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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“and his official team photo resembles what Jay Baruchel’s mugshot might’ve looked like if he’d been caught shoplifting candy from a Blockbuster circa 2001.” – The Ringer

Yes!