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Blake Snell has a Matt Moore problem

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His fastballs sail high and armside. All the time.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Rays fans have enjoyed the early careers of a series of highly-touted left-handed starting pitchers with quality fastballs. David Price passed that mantle to Matt Moore, and it’s now been taken over by 25-year old Blake Snell.

As Jim recently noted, Snell is off to a good start this season, with a 2.54 ERA and a 3.35 FIP, and he’s carried some momentum over from last year. There’s good reason for Rays fans to be pleased. But watching Snell pitch, there’s still room for him to be better. Facing righties, he has a tendency to miss armside and up with his fastball, wasting the pitch high and away.

Who else did that? Matt Moore.

The graph above is Matt Moore’s career vs. right-handed batters, and immediately you can notice the dark spot for the top right square. This is from a catcher’s perspective, so imagine that you’re behind the plate with a hitter to your left. That top right spot is one of the areas that Moore missed out of the strike zone the most when he lost command. The image really stuck with me.

Now that we’ve seen Blake Snell for parts of three seasons, he’s begun to show some of the same tendencies, and even more extremely:

While the middle-away part of the zone is where Snell usually sits away from righties, the top right section, representing pitches that miss up and away, is very dark as well.

The Pattern Is Real

The Statcast Search tool can give a sense of just how extreme Blake Snell’s location plot is. Gameday breaks the strike zone down into 12 zones, with the area outside of the strikezone to the top and the right being labeled as zone 12. During the time that Snell’s been in the league, no left-handed pitcher has thrown more four-seam fastballs in that zone to right-handed batters. Here are the top ten (note Moore down at number five).

LHP Four-Seam Fastballs to RHB, Up-And-Away

Player Fastballs In Zone 12 Total Fastballs Percent
Player Fastballs In Zone 12 Total Fastballs Percent
Blake Snell 423 1967 21.5
Drew Pomeranz 421 2004 21.0
Rich Hill 338 1552 21.8
Jon Lester 335 2301 14.6
Matt Moore 324 2512 12.9
Sean Manaea 318 1516 21.0
J.A. Happ 304 1842 16.5
Robbie Ray 299 1522 19.7
Eduardo Rodriguez 291 1497 19.4
Chris Sale 284 1243 22.9

And while Snell seems to have come into his own some in 2018, this pattern of misses has only grown. A full 34% of his fastballs to righties have been in zone 12.

Does it Matter?

If Snell has been doing this more in 2018, and has been pitching well overall in 2018, does that meant that throwing a fastball up and away to righties is a good thing? Might this be by design?

In a word, “no.” He’s suceeding in spite of those misses, not because of them.

Using that data from Baseball Savant, we can look at the eventual outcomes of all of the plate appearances where Snell’s thrown a fastball in zone 12. We can compare those outcomes to plate appearances where he’s thrown a fastball outside of the strike zone, but in other locations: in zone 11 (up and in), zone 13 (down and in), and zone 14 (down and away).

Fastballs Outside The Zone

Location of Fastball Number of PAs wOBA of those PAs
Location of Fastball Number of PAs wOBA of those PAs
Up-And-In (11) 265 0.307
Up-And-Away (12) 418 0.389
Down-And-In (13) 127 0.431
Down-And-Away (14) 253 0.374

This double counts some plate appearances, so the numbers don’t match up with Snell’s totals, but it gives a comparison of the overall effect of pitches in locations. None of the wOBA numbers are great, because pitches outside the strike zone are often balls. But one thing seems clear—fastballs up and in have lead to better results than the more common fastballs up and away.

Busting a hitter in on his hands seems to do a better job of changing eye level and setting up the plate appearance. To the extent that Snell is choosing where his fastball goes, up and in would appear to be the better choice. But being able to make that choice is a question of command, and persistent missing high and away points to still-inconsistent command.

Conclusion

I’d love to see the day where Snell commands his fastball with regularity, and if the second half improvements from last year are a sign then we should continue to expect better results. This year, despite an increased concentration in zone 12, the overall results have been good.

If Snell settles in as a guy who relies on pure stuff to get by, it’s going to be really tough to get righties to truly take his fastball seriously if they could just spit on it whenever he throws it up and away. However, his average fastball velocity of 95.1 mph should help in that regard if things don’t totally come together. That’s one thing that Matt Moore couldn’t count on given the gradual velocity decline he’s gone through over the years (96.4 in 2011 to 91.5 in 2018).

Time came for Matt Moore sooner than we wanted, but it comes for everyone eventually. For the moment, though, Snell’s arm is very live. This season he’s off to an excellent start. And he has room to improve.