2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell has a straight forward approach to his game. Facing hitters in general, Snell starts hitters the vast majority of the time with his excellent fastball, then gradually moves to his superior curve to put hitters away.
If Snell falls behind in the count and the hitter is right handed, he’s begin dropping in the change. If the hitter is left handed, he’ll continue to ride the fastball, but at any time may also break out the slider. Snell does not use the change against LHH (in fact, a left handed hitter did not see a change up from Snell once last year!).
Here’s how Snell’s usage shook out in his Cy Young season:
On his first start on an Opening Day, to kick off the 2019 season, Snell pivoted away from this tried-and-true approach, using the curve on first pitch a bit more than usual, and allowed three home runs. Two of those batters who homered against Snell received first-pitch curves the same at bat, and the third batter had received one previously.
As Snell danced between essentially only two pitches, the game got away from him.
Birth of a 7.50 ERA
HR 1: In the top of the third, the second time the right handed George Springer came to bat against Snell, he blasted a first-pitch curve into the stands, after seeing three curves in his first at bat. It was the third time that inning he’d used the first pitch curve, and the pitch was punished:
Third straight #OpeningDay HR for @GeorgeSpringer! pic.twitter.com/v7PO8tJwC2— Houston Astros (@astros) March 28, 2019
HR 2: Michael Brantley, a lefty, hit the next homerun in the fourth inning, driving a fastball in the zone over the wall. His first at bat he had seen a first pitch curve, but this time around his first pitch was a fastball in the zone. He’d whiffed on one of those before, but not the second time. Brantley didn’t get a slider in either at bat, so perhaps the fastball was too easy to identify. But we’re dealing with five pitches in two appearances, and sometimes a good hitter hits a fastball in the zone.
DEEEEEP to right! #TakeItBack pic.twitter.com/P44LtYJSMU— Houston Astros (@astros) March 28, 2019
HR 3: The third culprit was Jose Altuve, right handed, who had seen a first pitch curveball in the first inning, and when Snell tried another against him in the fifth, the All-Star second baseman laid off the borderline pitch. The next was a fastball down the middle as Snell looked to right the ship, and it was launched.
HR party of 3 courtesy of @JoseAltuve27. pic.twitter.com/X5xxBOR60Q— Houston Astros (@astros) March 28, 2019
Blake Snell would finish the day with 3 K, 2 BB, and 5 ER over 6.0 IP — good for a 7.50 ERA in his first start of the year.
All in all, here’s how Snell’s Opening Day looked in terms of usage:
If there is a story to be told here, it’s one of unrequited love between a man and his breaking ball, but not much else:
Command was good. I was happy with a lot of things I did. The only thing I was upset with was sequencing... I fell in love with the curveball and kept throwing it. I didn’t mix pitches like I should’ve been doing. I did it later, but it took me to learn that, by giving up home runs. Frustrating, but a lot to learn. A lot to learn, and I’m happy about that. I gotta be better, and I’ve got to sequence better... Everything felt good today; that’s on me.
Blake Snell’s curveball is incredible — without hyperbole, it’s difficult to find a better one in baseball — but on Opening Day, Snell attempted to tell the same story as last season by flipping the script, but in turn, didn’t get the ending he wanted.