No question, earlier in the season Blake Snell struggled to find the strike zone. This caused elevated pitch counts and added innings to a bullpen that wasn’t handling them well.
But recently something has changed.
Walks have plagued Snell throughout his career. Last season he was able to tap dance around a 12.7% walk rate in 19 starts on way to a 3.54 ERA and 3.39 FIP. Most of his good fortune was based on an extremely low 5.6% HR/FB rate.
In the first half of this season the walk rate ballooned to 14.5%. Unlike 2016, however, his HR/FB rate approached league average at 12.1%. Not surprisingly, his ERA swelled to 4.85 ERA and 5.11 FIP.
Since the All-Star break his walk rate has fallen dramatically. In his past six starts his walk rate has fallen to 7.2%. This is less than 3 per nine at 2.76 BB/9. His HR/FB rate has held relatively stable at 12.8% and his fly ball rate has stayed consistent. His ERA hasn’t fallen much — it’s 4.68 — but his FIP has been much improved at 4.39.
His strikeout rate has remained flat. In the first half he posted a 19.2% strikeout rate and is currently at 19.4% in the second half. Nonetheless his swinging strike rate has increased to 10.2% from 8.8%. Last year he did strike out 24.4% of batters faced with a 10.9% whiff rate.
It might not need stating, but Snell’s walk rate was elevated because he was constantly falling behind on batters (which can have some negative consequences apart from the walks). In the first half of the season, 36.13% of pitches Snell threw were when he was behind in the count. In the second half that has been lowered to 31.29%. An almost 5% drop moves him from worst in the league among pitchers to throw at least 250 pitches to just below average.
When the pitcher is behind, batters are not incentivized to swing at non strikes. This showed in his 25.5% out of zone swing rate which led to a really low 38.8% swinging rate. In his second half run batters have swung at 45.1% with most of the gains coming from the out of zone swing rate surging to 33.6%.
His overall strike rate has gone from 57.2% to 61.5%. League average hovers around 63%. There is still room for improvement, but Snell has been much better.
Looking at individual pitches, his fastball has gotten very similar results but he has dropped its use from 58.5% to 53.0%.
It’s the change-up that has been the difference maker. Batters are swinging at a much higher rate, going from roughly 40% to 60% swing rate. The whiff rate has surged from 10.4% to 15.0%. Snell typically faces lineups that are stacked with right handed bats, so increased results from the change-up could be huge moving forward.
Can Snell continue this improvement moving forward? Will he be able to get the strikeout rate to improve? If the answer to either question is yes then Snell will be a quality starting pitching option. If the answer becomes yes to both then he has the stuff to be special.
We’re likely years away from finding out what Blake Snell will be as a major league baseball player, but in his last six starts he has improved what could have been his fatal flaw.