After his incredible run through the minors in 2015, Blake Snell’s promotion could not come quickly enough for Rays fans. He made a spot start in April, and then was called up for good mid June. The lefty showed us that his stuff is really elite. He also reminded us that it doesn’t matter how good a pitch is if you can’t throw it for strikes.
Last off season we took a look at the movement on Blake’s pitches based on 1 inning of minor league work that had PITCHf/x cameras running. We assessed he might actually have four plus pitches, if he could command them all. That gave us something to get excited about, but it was still such a small sample that we had to temper expectations. Well, Blake gave us plenty of data from this year to compare to that early glimpse.
Now that we’ve seen him for the better part of a major league season, we have far more data to analyze, and the good news is that his stuff is even better than the scant minor league data had suggested.
This graphic from Brooks Baseball shows the movement differences. Not shown is the velocity difference. Compared to our earlier analysis, we now see that his fastball is slightly faster with more rise. His change up is 3mph faster with more run but doesn’t drop much from the heater. The slider is slightly faster and drops more but doesn’t run as much as before. And the curve is 4mph faster while still carrying that incredible drop that normally only comes with super slow curves.
So in short, his stuff is even better than we thought. Dare I say it even looks like Clayton Kershaw’s arsenal? Kershaw had a pretty similar rookie season to Snell’s, and then improved over time as he phased out the change up after developing an incredible slider.
It’s hard to imagine Snell dropping one of his great pitches, but it might be something he needs to do to improve the command of his other pitches.
Snell averaged more than a strikeout per inning, but also averaged more than one walk every other inning. He’s always been a guy who walked a few more batters than he should, but that really ballooned in 2016. He has the stuff to get guys out without nibbling on the edges of the strike zone all night. He needs to trust his stuff and stay inside the zone. If he can do that, he will cut down on walks.
Hopefully better command will also limit the damage done on hard hit balls. Hitters squared the ball up for a line drive 27% of the time it was put in play. That’s the 2nd highest rate in the majors (min. 80 IP), and it absolutely cannot continue if Snell is going to be a top of the rotation pitcher. He needs to induce more weak contact, but has struggled to do that nibbling on the edges, getting into hitters’ counts, and then needing to throw strikes that good hitters can pound. This tendency probably contributed in large part to his .356 BABIP. Trust the stuff and throw strikes early in the count: that should be Snell’s mantra in 2017.
He also ran an unsustainably low 5.6% HR/FB rate. That will surely rise in 2017, which means he needs to improve in other areas to make up for the regression there. xFIP suggests that with an average HR/FB rate of 10-12% he would have given up 11 HRs instead of 5, ending up with a 4.35 ERA instead of 3.54 ERA he lucked into.
Teams stacked their lineups against Snell with more and more righties as the season went on. Most metrics, save one, show he was equally effective vs both sides: righties hit him with more power (garnering more extra base hits).
At the end of the day, Snell was effective in 2016 despite issuing a ton of free passes because he kept the hard hit balls in the park. The ERA was respectable, and fWAR loved him, but he has work to do if he’s going to continue to be the potential 4 fWAR pitcher his stuff says he can be.
Fangraph’s Steamer projection system thinks Snell will significantly improve his walk rate and BABIP, while allowing closer to a league average HR/FB rate. Taking those changes into account, Steamer projects him for a 3.61 ERA, beating his projected 3.88 FIP and 4.20 xFIP. This is all good for 2.0 fWAR over just 134 innings in 24 starts. Barring injury, I would expect Snell to see 30-32 starts, so that fWAR could bump up into the 2.5 range over a full season’s work. That sounds like a conservative estimate, with borderline All Star as a ceiling if one of two things happen: 1. he trusts his stuff and throws all of his pitches for strikes more often, or 2. he’s able to sustain a well-below average Clayton Kershaw-esque HR/FB rate.
If both happen, he’s an All Star.