Snell Trades $15,500 for $50 Million

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.

ZiPS Projections – Blake Snell
Year W L ERA G GS IP H ER HR BB SO ERA+ WAR
2019 15 9 3.08 31 31 166.7 135 57 15 66 189 135 4.2
2020 14 8 3.14 30 30 160.7 131 56 14 65 181 132 3.9
2021 14 8 3.12 29 29 156.0 127 54 14 63 177 133 3.8
2022 13 7 3.10 27 27 145.3 118 50 13 58 165 134 3.6
2023 12 7 3.12 25 25 138.3 111 48 12 55 159 133 3.4

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.

Top 15 Pitchers by Five-Year ZiPS WAR
Rank Player 5 Year
1 Chris Sale 25.9
2 German Marquez 21.8
3 Luis Severino 21.3
4 Corey Kluber 21.2
5 Jacob deGrom 20.8
6 Aaron Nola 20.5
7 Max Scherzer 19.5
8 Gerrit Cole 19.2
9 Blake Snell 19.1
10 Shane Bieber 19.0
11 Trevor Bauer 18.8
12 Justin Verlander 18.5
13 Carlos Carrasco 17.0
14 Clayton Kershaw 16.9
15 Noah Syndergaard 16.4

(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.

Pitches by League Rank – Blake Snell
Pitch Rank
Fastball 16th
Slider 12th
Curve 3rd
Changeup 7th

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.

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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.

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Cardinal Sin
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Member
Cardinal Sin

This rash of arb extensions makes me wonder whether the owners know something about significant changes to the current pre-FA system coming down the pipe. My guess is there’s a decrease in team control in the next couple years (minus 1 arb year, perhaps, or a brand new system?)

tz
Member

I have a theory about this. With analytic folks now in basically every front office, we’ve probably gotten market consensus that spending on free agents is the least efficient use of payroll. Spending a moderate amount above the expected arbitration cost to extend your control years on your best young talent is,much more efficient.

Exhibit A: the Yankees extending Severino and Hicks. It’s not just for low budget teams any more.

Cardinal Sin
Member
Member
Cardinal Sin

Sure, I agree with that wholeheartedly, but the timing is somewhat suspicious all in a chunk like this – the analytic folks have been in place and against FA for a couple years now based on the last 2 offseasons. The timing makes me think that it’s some combination of: (a) the players are now terrified of FA (duh), and have some level of union blessing to sign these deals, (b) the owners recently realized that the arbitrators are less stingy/old-school than they were in the past, resulting in higher pre-FA salaries, and/or (c) the owners have sensed the public tide is turning against them and are planning to concede some pre-FA changes to placate the players, which will result in less control over their current pre-FA players.

The fact that MLB recently met with the union 2 years before the end of the CBA is another sign, methinks. If they got a sense of what FA changes the players were pushing for, I could see the owners deciding what compromises they expect to reasonably propose and then acting quickly to lock down talent while they can. But who knows? I feel like a conspiracy theorist…

baubo
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baubo

I’d say the players now willing to accept extensions is the biggest change. After all, just last year you had Greg Holland rejecting something like 3yr/$52 and Boras entering FA asking for $200mil for Arrieta.

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

(c) is most likely, IMO. I mean let’s not overthink this… teams know there’s a change coming. And even if the players know that preARB will soon be better also… which party has the financial ability to go with their gut on such a farsighted “gut feeling”??

Obviously the teams.. so they just concede a little now, and maybe save a few ten million bucks.

johansantana17
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johansantana17

I think (a) is definitely happening, (b) is probably happening, and (c) might be happening.

antone
Member
antone

Is the narrative still that the owners are collusive, or have we moved to something else now with all these extensions and record signings? I can’t keep up.

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

Exactly!

This narrative you speak of… is a very very tired and overused excuse. Surely it’s over with

CL1NT
Member
CL1NT

Well yeah.. with the current dramatic narrative that major league players are being shafted so horribly by salaries, teams know that it’s only a matter of time before things change and they’ll have to pony up more money.

IDK who has the most pull right now (in terms of forcing a change), the players, Manfred, the fans… but there has to be a ‘REACTION’.. there always is.

We shall see…

martyvan90
Member
martyvan90

CS, I suspect you are correct. It seems the owners are recognizing the market realities and are taking advantage of a market inefficiency in advance of a new deal being struck. Hopefully both sides will prioritize and align around their prioritized needs- owners large market/small market needs and MLBPA around pre-arb, arb and post arb needs (and hopefully putting a little meat on the bone for MiLB players). My fear is either or both won’t have a well thought out plan that is prioritized. That could result in significant stoppage.