Blake Snell, the top pitching prospect in the Rays organization, got his debut yesterday against the Yankees. It was just a spot start, and he was sent back to Triple-A immediately after the game, but it was a great opportunity for Rays fans to get a first look at the future of the Rays pitching staff.
Snell's line on the night was good, giving up just one run on two hits and a walk (and a wild pitch) over five innings while striking out six Yankee batters. It was a good start for the young lefty, but what he showed in it was more impressive than the box score.
Let's get to the PITCHf/x.
If you've followed the Rays pitching closely over the past couple years, and looked at very many of these movement charts, you know exactly what I'm going to talk about first: fastball rise.
Snell's fastball rose, on average, 14.3 inches (13.3 inches at Brooks Baseball once they've adjusted the starting location). That's massive, and it's something that the Rays have made into one signature of their pitching philosophy. Here's the leaderboard, from FanGraphs, of pitchers with the top-10 most fastball rise so far in 2016:
|Marco Estrada||Blue Jays||18||13.4|
To include Snell, I've obviously also included some other guys with very few pitches thrown. Just missing the cut on this list is Jake Odorizzi with 12.5 inches of rise, and Enny Romero is far away either at number 19.
Snell's numbers may settle down once he gets more innings in front of the PITCHf/x cameras, but you should feel confident saying now that he's a pitcher with an elite ability to spin the fastball and make it rise.
That's not all that's worth noticing about his fastball, though. Because while other Rays high on this list have fastballs whose movement makes them deceptively hard to make contact with despite low-90s velocity (Geltz has averaged 92 mph so far in 2016 and Smyly has averaged 93 mph), Snell averaged 95 mph yesterday and reached 97 mph.
This is a fastball that will give major league hitters fits.
The Mysterious Curve
After the fastball, the pitch that Snell threw most often yesterday was his curve. Which is fun, because, as we noted in our Snell preview, neither Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, nor MLB Pipeline had graded Snell's curve (FanGraphs did grade it, as Snell's third-best pitch).
Well, it certainly does exist, and it's big and slow. Brooks Baseball has the curve at 74 mph with eight inches of drop. That's, uh, very different than his fastball.
So when you have a pitch 20 mph slower and with 22 inches of vertical difference than your plus fastball, you have a pitch that batters aren't probably not going to be looking for.
And the Yankees weren't. Snell threw his curve 16 times and it was swung at only twice. Six times, he dropped it in for a called strike. Do that more, and he'll get more strikes, and probably more ground balls as well.
Two Options in the Middle
In between his hard fastball and his slow curve, Blake Snell showed two other pitches. The ten changeups he threw averaged 84 mph, and the five sliders he threw averaged 83 mph.
The changeup doesn't drop the way many of the best changeups in the game do, but because the fastball rises so much, the changeup does have some relative drop. And there's a healthy difference in the speeds between the two that should make it a workable secondary pitch.
Snell's slider doesn't run very much, especially in relation to his horizontally-straight fastball, but it does drop quite a bit more than does his changeup. In that regard, I think Drew Smyly is a pretty good comparison. Like Smyly, Snell has a fastball without much run but with an elite level of rise. And like Smyly, he has a selection of other pitches at different vertical movement points that should allow him to play games with hitters' heads and bats on the Y-axis.
I made a Tableau chart to look at results of each of the pitch types. Click here for the interactive version where you can filter by pitch types and results.
Snell has several things going for him, but most importantly, he has the one thing all pitchers covet: a plus fastball. This is the type of fastball that can work all on its own. It has velocity, and it has movement, and if Snell can command it around the strike zone, it could be enough for most situations.
And because of both the overall quality of his fastball and the uniqueness of its movement, the rest of Snell's repertoire should play up as well, as long as he's able to put it where he wants it. The big, slow curve is a major change of speed and eye level that Snell can drop into the zone for strikes, and can probably drop below the zone for whiffs and ground balls (not something he did much of yesterday).
The changeup movement isn't special, but it's 10+ mph separation from the fastball should make it effective for as long as hitters have to amp themselves up for Snell's heat. And the movement on Snell's slider should keep it well away from the bat of a hitter used to the fastball, and should make it a swing-and-miss pitch, at least to lefties.
But in the slider is a warning. Snell threw five sliders, and all of them were balls. Several of them looked like decent pitches in the game, but were too far off the plate to get the batter to chase.
If he can command his fastball, he'll set hitters up for his secondary pitches. If he can command his secondary pitches, there's enough going on for him to never become predictable. If he can command all of those at once, he's an ace. If he can't, he's just another one of many major league pitchers with quality stuff that they can't really use.
Blake Snell's debut was enough to make Rays fans excited—what we saw was front-line pitches. But it may also be enough to make Rays fans worry, like a dog with a bone that it fears will be stolen away, because we didn't see a pitcher in complete command of everything he had. Now Snell goes back down to Durham, and we have nothing to do but wait and anticipate greatness and check for walks in the minor league box score.