The Rays’ Friday night loss to the Red Sox was frustrating on many levels. It just seemed like one of those games right from the first pitch, and whether it was an inconsistent strike zone, the Sox bullpen outdueling the Rays bullpen, or the fact that Saturday now feels like a must-win, the game as a whole was just less than ideal.
Of course, things might have been very different if the Rays’ ace, Blake Snell, hadn’t decided to do some in-bathroom redecoration and landed himself on the IL this past week. Snell was originally scheduled to start the series against the Sox, and given how he has been pitching in 2019, it’s fair to say the Sox likely wouldn’t have gotten to six runs.
Over his first four starts, Snell’s ERA (2.16) is nearly the equal to his Cy Young winning ERA last season (1.89) but his 2019 FIP (2.75) and xFIP (2.09) have actually been better than last season (2.95 and 3.16, respectively). His strikeout rate is up from 11.01 to 12.96 and his walk rate has dropped from 3.19 to 1.44 — top to bottom, he’s been absurd.
But none of those stats are as absurd as one, continuous, trend in Snell’s game: His dominance with runners of base.
In 2019, one of the key points of debate surrounding the AL Cy Young Award was whether Snell could truly stake his claim to a better season than Justin Verlander considering that Snell had appeared to get a bit lucky with runners on base. His 88.0 percent left on base rate was the highest in all of baseball (for the record, Verlander was second), and his .203 wOBA allowed with men on base was the lowest in baseball. Undoubtedly some of that was skill, but it was fair to think that some of that would come back to earth in 2019.
So far, with the massive caveat that it has been four starts and 25.0 innings, Snell has allowed a slash line of .091/.130/.227 with men on base, good for a .155 wOBA, fourth in all of baseball and somehow even better than 2018. His LOB% is a cool 97 percent, trailing only Jordan Lyles and his perfect 100 percent LOB% (see, you know it’s early in the season when someone can still stake a 100 percent LOB%). Once again, Snell has seemingly saved his best pitching for when it matters most.
Now, there isn’t much evidence out there that this type of success is something that is very sticky year-to-year. As much as we like to imagine Jack Morris types, who step up in the clutch and lock in when it matters, the fact remains that once you get to a level as high as the majors, that’s just not really a thing — at least at the level Snell has been going at the past 13 months.
That being said, I don’t think this is worth writing off entirely. There are definitely pitchers who can, especially for a couple season run, perform better with runners on base. There’s a chance that’s where Snell is right now. I wouldn’t bet my life on it, in fact I wouldn’t say that it’s even more than likely, but it’s something to keep an eye on, and something to enjoy while it continues.