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Rays 2019: Blake Snell should continue to be good AND lucky

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If “luck” is a top defense behind you, Snell need not regress in 2019. But about those walks....

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when Blake Snell won the 2018 Cy Young Award? The way this offseason has dragged, it does seem like ages ago. But as much as we all enjoyed watching and documenting his historic season, it wasn’t without just a touch of luck, and his winning the award for the best pitcher in the American League certainly wasn’t without controversy:

Despite the disparity between Snell’s 1.98 ERA and Justin Verlander’s 2.52 mark, it was a very close finish. Some of baseball’s brightest minds, including closet Rays fan Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs, thought Verlander was the better pitcher. Indeed, according to some metrics he was. Nonetheless, it was Snell who took home the hardware.

Can he do it again?

The short answer is yes; the longer answer is — it’s complicated. Snell’s 219 adjusted ERA was the best among qualified pitchers in baseball. The next best pitcher in that regard was New York MetsJacob deGrom (216) — whose own Cy Young win was controversial as well.

We are aware of his skills, and so are hitters, for that matter — as they slashed just .178/.254/.300 against him. His pitch mix, as well as his ability to get swings and misses will always play.

To project accurately what we might get from Snell in 2019, however, we need to look past his ERA. Even though it’s long been the standard unit of measure for evaluating pitchers, ERA is known to be flawed in its ability to measure a pitcher’s skill set. Further, it’s much less of a predictor of future success, due to the subjectivity of earned runs and the unevenness of team defensive abilities, among other factors.

Digging into Snell’s advanced metrics, we see that there is some room for improvement. While he led the American League in Baseball-Reference WAR (7.5), he was 7th in FanGraphs WAR (4.6). This is because Baseball-Reference WAR heavily weighs the pitcher’s ability to prevent runs, while FanGraphs WAR is Fielding Indepent Pitching (FIP) based, and thus does a better job of isolating the outcomes a pitcher has more control over — strikeouts, walks and home runs (more on that later).

Blake Snell advanced metrics and AL ranks

Metric 2019 result AL Rank
Metric 2019 result AL Rank
K/9 11.01 4th
BB/9 3.19 20th
HR/9 0.8 3rd
FIP 2.95 5th
xFIP 3.19 7th

While Snell was the best pitcher in the AL last year in terms of basic run prevention, according to this table, he’s not the best when we look at more advanced statistics (which we sometimes call a pitcher’s “peripherals”), which can be better predictors.

Snell’s success may be in part linked to playing in front of a great defense, which suggests the possibility of regression in 2019. But here’s the thing: The Rays continue to prioritize defense so he will be playing in front of a great defense in 2019 as well! The Rays were 5th in Defensive Runs Saved in 2018. Since Stu and the crew (sick band name alert) took over, it’s what they’ve prioritized (for the most part), and the coming year looks to be no different. According to FanGraphs FDP-Wins metric (FDP stands for Fielding Dependent Pitching), Snell was tops in all of baseball.

Additionally, Snell led the AL in BABIP against, and all of baseball in LOB%, stranding 88% of runners. His ability to strike batters out and limit hard contact undoubtedly played into that, but it’s safe to say the Rays defense also contributed to a reasonable degree.

Room for improvement

When it comes to Snell’s fielding independent stats, though, he could do himself some favors by lowering his walk rate. To be fair, he has improved on this every year he’s been in the majors, but his 3.2 BB/9 mark of 2018 is not elite.

Compared to the rest of the league, Snell was much less impressive in terms of FIP and xFIP.

xFIP, unlike standard FIP, normalizes a pitchers’ home run-to-fly ball ratio to the league average. Snell’s 0.8 HR/9 in 2018 helped balance his FIP against his walk rate, but surely is exposed in his xFIP. The idea behind xFIP is that a pitcher’s home run to fly ball ratio is volatile and difficult to predict over time. Therefore, in theory, setting it to the league average further isolates the pitcher’s ability to control the things he can control. Snell’s HP/FB% (10.7) was two percentage points better than the league average (12.7)

If we can assume a regression (even a small one) for things like BABIP against, LOB% and HR/9, those free passes are likely to turn into runs against Snell in 2019. It’s safe to say he will continue to strike out a lot of batters, but it’s also safe to say he’ll allow a few more home runs, and give up a few more hits. If Snell can produce a league average walk rate, it would be a marked improvement.

Conclusion

As much as we want to think that predicting performance has gotten easier with the amount of available information, it is still extremely difficult. While the case can be made that Blake Snell outperformed his peripherals in 2018, much of what allowed him to do so will remain constant in 2019.

Even if Snell’s traditional stats do regress to match his underlying stats, he’ll continue to be among the best in the show. If they don’t, he’ll still have some stiff competition — Verlander and Kluber were the others in the final Cy Young vote, while Chris Sale, Trevor Bauer and Luis Severino were among those in the conversation for most of the year.

If Snell continues to throw nasty stuff, and the Rays continue to play great defense behind him, there’s a strong possibility he’s in the awards conversation again in 2019. But because there was a fair amount of luck that factored into his success, his hopes of repeating his award-winning season will depend on some of that luck to continue.

Here’s what Steamer (FanGraphs) projects for Snell for ‘19:

Blake Snell 2019 Steamer projections

ERA FIP HR/9 LOB% BABIP
ERA FIP HR/9 LOB% BABIP
3.24 3.31 0.92 76.2 .289