The Tampa Bay Rays announced this afternoon that they’ve come to terms on a long-term contract extension with the team’s ace, Blake Snell. At five years and $50 million, Snell’s new deal buys out all of his arbitration years and nets the Rays, or the team he’s eventually traded to, an extra year until he hits free agency. There are no team-friendly option years tacked into the end, a common feature in pre-arbitration long-term deals such as this. The deal will take Snell through his age-30 season.
Yes, it’s less than Snell would make if he were a free agent today, but in the big picture, it’s the MLBPA’s job to negotiate a fair system of compensation with major league teams. Snell has to do what’s best for himself under the system that’s currently in place. And as these contracts go, it’s hardly a poor one for the 2018 American League Cy Young winner. The contract goes into effect immediately, crushing the $15,500 raise that Snell was assigned by the team, a situation that was primed to leave lingering bad feelings between player and team. (See Gerrit Cole and the Pirates for a situation in which fighting over a few thousand dollars led to long-term bad feelings.) Per Jeff Passan, it’s the largest deal ever given to a player with just two years of service time, surpassing those signed by Gio Gonzalez as a Super 2 (five years, $42 million) and Corey Kluber (five years, $38.5 million); both of those deals contained option years.
The ZiPS projections don’t usually get too excited about single seasons, but Snell’s emergence was stunning one. No, he’s not really the pitcher that the 1.89 ERA suggests, but then, nobody really is so it’s not part of anybody’s realistic expectations. With the downside risks in both performance and injury factored in ZiPS, the projections still see him averaging just under four WAR a year over the terms of the contract. That’s enough to rank him comfortably in the top projected starting pitchers over the next five seasons.
(Remember, I told you that ZiPS loves Shane Bieber more than anything you or I will ever love.)
As a free agent, ZiPS projects that Snell would receive and eight-year, $243 million contract. $50 million is obviously quite a lot less than that, but again, it’s the system we have at this moment and the system in which Snell has to make his decisions. When projecting year-by-year, future arbitration awards, and a year of free agency, ZiPS projects Snell to make $73 million over the next five years in a world in which the extension was not signed.
That’s a significant loss for Snell, but it reflects the amount of leverage that teams have over pre-arbitration stars and thus, it’s baked into the system. Snell received a decent signing bonus of $684,000, far more than most draft picks get, but that was also back in 2011, with taxes taking half of it from the moment he signed. Two years, and 40% of another, of minimums gets him over a million, but again, that’s not “live on for the rest of your life” money. Until Snell got his first big arbitration award, the Rays had the upper hand, and pitchers being the way they are, there’s always another fresh cautionary tale to point to about the risks they face (just this week, it was Michael Fulmer).
The fact that it only costs Snell a single year of free agency is a big one. Based on the projections at this minute, if Snell became a free agent in four years, ZiPS suggests he’d get a six-year, $171 million deal. ZiPS estimates a six-year, $162 million contract for that “next contract” after adding a year to the start date. Of course, given the state of the free agent market now, it is reasonable to wonder just how many suitors a 30-year-old pitcher will attract, even one so talented as Snell. Further complicating that assessment is the fact that that hot stove season will be conducted under a new CBA.
Beyond the statistic-based projections, one reason I’m optimistic about Snell’s continued dominance is just how deep his repertoire is. Snell’s success isn’t a gimmick pitch or deception or contingent on leveraging a single pitch in his arsenal to the fullest. Literally everything he throws is frightening; Snell wasn’t the hardest starting pitcher to make contact against (66.6%, 1st of 57 qualifiers) in 2018 by accident.
It’s a strange thought, but his 95-98 mph fastball, a pitch against which batters hit .221 and slugged .358, was arguably his least effective pitch in 2019. From a strategy standpoint, the biggest change in Snell from 2018 was his confidence in his curveball, which he threw twice as often as he did in 2017. But it wasn’t just the quantity. It was the situations in which he used it; Snell used the curve as his out pitch as often as his slider against lefties and it practically replaced his slider against righties. Having that additional weapon against righties erased 2017’s large platoon splits and the strikeout rate against those hitters improved by nearly 50%, from 21% to 31%.
The Rays would not have stayed Wild Card relevant as long as they did in 2018 without Blake Snell. He’s the most important employee of the Rays, be it player or executive or owner, so it’s nice to see him get paid in a way that reflects that importance to the franchise.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.