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No longer overlooked, Blake Snell has emerged into a frontrunner for AL Cy Young

The Rays ace has put a ton of meat on his Cy Young case over his last eight starts.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Seven innings pitched. Nine strikeouts. Two walks. One hit. One run. That is the pitching line from Blake Snell’s latest dominant start, earning his MLB-best 19th win, this time over the AL Central-leading Indians. This effort fits well amongst the abundance of excellent starts Snell has given Tampa Bay this season. A season in which he should be strongly considered for the American League Cy Young Award.

But let’s rewind to the Midsummer Classic. At the time, Snell was viewed as an elite starting pitcher. Because he was robbed of a spot on the first American League All-Star announcement, he garnered more attention than any of us could have predicted.

While people took notice of Snell’s dominant first half, he wasn’t quite earning the respect of a legitimate Cy Young candidate, but rather among the second-tier group of arms such as Houston’s Justin Verlander, New York’s Luis Severino, Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer, and Cleveland’s Corey Kluber. They appeared to be on the outside looking in, with Boston’s Chris Sale at the top of the pecking order. It wasn’t strictly a one-man race, but if Sale kept his foot on the gas, stayed healthy, and his competition didn’t put together a jaw-dropping final two months, he would receive baseball’s most prestigious pitching award.

Fast forward to today — a lot has changed. Chris Sale and Trevor Bauer got hurt, missing about a month’s worth of starts each. Kluber has been really good and stayed healthy, but, like Verlander, hasn’t turned in as impressive run-preventing numbers as Sale, Snell, and Bauer. Last, and in fact least, Severino has turned into a pumpkin.

Then we have Blake Snell. He had his own DL stint at the start of the second half, missing four starts, but he has put together a brilliant stretch since his August 4 return. In that time frame, he’s posted a 7-0 record with a 1.40 ERA, 2.20 FIP, and a .163 opponents batting average, while punching out a blistering 37.7% of batters and preventing free passes like nobody’s business (5.6 BB%). Since he returned, Snell ranks atop nearly every statistical category among pitchers.

This has come nearly entirely while Sale and Bauer have been out with their injuries, allowing Snell to not only restore his Cy Young case but immerse himself into a truly legitimate contender to win the award.

Sweet, but what does he need to do to win?

This year’s race is particularly intriguing because often the pitcher who wins the Cy Young reaches 200-plus innings pitched. In fact, there has never been an AL Cy Young winner who was a starting pitcher with fewer than 200 innings pitched (with the exception of the 1994 strike-shortened season). Out of all the candidates, Sale, Snell, and Bauer have been the best run-preventers, but none of them will get close to 200 innings pitched. Verlander and Kluber, on the other hand, will reach that milestone. So, the question is whether voters will lean towards run prevention or workload.

In his last three starts, Snell needs to work deep into games while gradually improving his ERA and strikeout totals. If he can, he will pick up win number 20. While pitching wins have become an irrelevant and meaningless pitching statistic in today’s age of advanced analytics, it might be Snell’s best chance to win the award when comparing Sale’s current 12 wins — even over the fact that he ranks second in ERA and fourth in WHIP.

Honestly, I couldn’t care a less about pitching wins, but there are writers who do. And they could have an extremely tough time giving the award to 12-win Sale (who will be on a strict pitch count as he works his way back to full health) over 21-win Snell.

Not only has this turned out to be a magical season for the Rays, but it’s also been quite the campaign for their best pitcher who spent over a month in Durham last year. He’ll look to keep it rolling in his next start, which will come on the road against the Rangers.

Credit to my main man Dominik Vega for the phenomenal looking graphs.

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.

Dan Slaubaugh is a Contributing Writer at DRaysBay. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanSlaubaugh