Late February and early March is the perfect time for excitement and hype. It’s also the perfect time for concern-trolling and over-wrought hand-wringing. With that in mind, we’re beginning a series surrounding the players we are most excited or nervous about for 2018.
The man who likely sits atop most Rays fans’ “2018 breakouts” list is Blake Snell.
The former top Rays prospect (and #12 in all of baseball in 2015) has shown flashes throughout his brief career, but nothing can compare with the stretch Snell put together to end 2017.
After the All-Star break, Snell posted a 3.49 ERA with a 1.125 WHIP and had a K-BB% of 15.7 percent. (Plus, he went 5-2 after going 0-5 in the first half, for whatever that’s worth - which isn’t much, but it also probably means more to Snell and his confidence than all the other numbers I referenced.) If we want to shrink the sample size a bit, he posted a 2.62 ERA with more than a strikeout an inning over his final eight starts of 2017, and if we want to go real granular his final start of 2017 couldn’t have left Rays fans on a higher note.
Seeing his first taste of October baseball (well, not that kind of October baseball), Snell struck out 13 Orioles, while walking none and allowing only two hits in seven scoreless frames. Not only did he get 13 strikeouts, but he got an absurd 25 whiffs overall and had the highest average fastball velocity of any Snell start in 2017 (per Brooks Baseball). It was basically the perfect way to end the season.
So is it going to be sustainable in 2018?
Well, here is the short answer:
But the longer answer is almost as promising. While the sudden jump in production could easily be written off to a young player (Snell just turned 25 in December) simply adjusting to the major league level, there’s even more sound reasoning behind it.
As DRB’s JT Morgan pointed out last August, the biggest improvement in Snell’s second-half profile was his walk rate. To quote JT:
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.
Updated through the end of the season, those figures came in at 8.0 percent walk rate in the second half and 2.91 BB/9 - still pretty solid, especially since his strikeouts tracked upwards after that article.
Again, was this a case of just a younger player gaining the confidence to attack the plate more? Well, maybe in part, but it could also have a deeper explanation. As Bill Chastain covered for MLB.com, a shift in where Snell stood on the mound may have played a role in the improved performance. As Chastian wrote:
After Blake Snell moved his starting position to the middle of the rubber prior to the end of the 2017 season, everything seemed to click into place mechanically for the left-hander. And the results showed in his strong finish with the Rays in ‘17, when he went 5-1 with a 2.84 ERA in his final 10 starts.
Snell himself certainly felt it made a difference, stating in that same article:
”As of now, from what I can see, I feel great,” Snell said. “I feel aligned. I feel like when I play catch, I’m not drifting [my body position]. I’m consistent. Everything’s exactly where I want it and I really couldn’t be happier.”
Maybe the most interesting part is that Snell’s velocity consistently ticked up throughout the season, as well.
Now, that might not seemed as tied to mound positioning as command, but if you think about it, it really does make sense. If Snell is more comfortable with where the ball is going, he won’t mind putting a bit more gas into it, as he has faith his fastball will go where he tells it to. Snell, in that same article, also noted his velocity.
”I just think it knocked my consistency, knocked my [velocity] for sure,” Snell said. “Throwing across your body, it’s really hard to locate, it was just a big struggle for me.”
All of that leads to 2018.
As a big-time prospect, Snell has faced a certain type pressure/expectation throughout his career, but expectations will certainly be higher than ever before for the young lefty. Between the increased velocity, strong second half numbers, and potential analytical explanation for both, it’s no coincidence Snell is leading off the Hype Train series.