The damage was limited, but a lack of control paired with a lackluster curveball is what will define Blake Snell’s ALDS Game 1 start. The Rays’ ace took the mound Monday night facing off against Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees looking to build upon his strong start against the Blue Jays in the Wildcard series.
Rather than build upon his five and two thirds innings of shutout baseball against the Jays, Snell struggled with his command and paid the price against the Bronx Bombers. Snell worked five innings, giving up trio of homeruns, and left the game trailing 4-3. He would eventually take the loss.
Bumpday was a constant uphill battle for the former Cy Young southpaw. Here is what he did well, what he did poorly, and some notes on key at-bats:
Where did Snell excel?
Snell attacked the zone early and often with fastballs up in the zone, throwing a first pitch strike to 16 of the 23 batters he faced. The game plan was obvious from the onset: Attack the top of the zone with his fastball and then work the curveball off of it. Unfortunately, the curveball wasn’t up to the challenge, and more on that in a moment.
After throwing twenty pitches in the first and surrendering a run, Snell rebounded with a 1-2-3 second inning. The southpaw responded well again after giving up a leadoff bomb to Clint Frazier in the third retiring the side on eight pitches.
He also wiggled out of a bases loaded jam in the fourth with a strikeout of Frazier by going textbook fastball-offspeed at the top of the zone, finishing on a cool slider at 88 mph:
Then ended the fifth by striking out Stanton on a beautiful change:
What did Snell struggle with?
Walks and an ineffective curveball stained Snell’s outing, and they go hand in hand for Snell on his “bad” outings. With the command of his curveball, his best pitch, lacking, Snell was backed into a corner from the very first at-bat.
It was clear that he did not have the feel for the deuce tonight as he consistently missed the zone. As a result, the game plan that was supposed revolve around pairing a high-octane fastball up in the zone with a devastating curveball in the lower third of the zone rapidly became one dimensional.
Snell made the switch from his curveball to the changeup as his go-to secondary pitch, and the audible was effective, but his control of the changeup was erratic at times as well. He induced weak contact on a handful of occasions with the changeup, but also struggled with the location of the pitch as well.
If Kevin Cash had limited Snell to only four innings pitched, we would not be so focused on these inconsistencies, but his return to the mound in the fifth added two home runs that might not have been allowed to a high leverage arm.
In five innings, Snell walked three batters and struck out four, and Yankees batters worked a handful of full counts and forced Snell to make twenty or more pitches in three of his five innings. Without his best reliably sharp, Snell lacked a true put-away pitch and as a result worked deep into counts consistently.
The bottom line? He just wasn't sharp. At times he executed, but more times than not he failed to do so, largely because of his curveball that failed to be effective.
Moments that Mattered
3rd inning: Leadoff homerun by Clint Frazier
After a 1-2-3 second inning, Blake Snell mounted the rubber ready to face Frazier, the Yankees eight-hole hitter. He started him off with a curveball in the dirt. The next pitch would travel 418 feet and give the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Frazier turned on a fastball at the upper reaches of the zone and deposited it.
The idea is simple, pitch Frazier backwards and change his eye levels (see the strikeout above). Maybe set up the high fastball with a first pitch curveball.
In this at bat, the curveball was low and served its purpose. The fastball was well located at the top of zone, even slightly above it. Had the curveball been thrown for a strike, the fastball is likely a bit higher, but Snell couldn’t afford to fall behind 2-0 to the eight-hole hitter to leadoff the inning and therefore made a more competitive pitch.
Had Snell possessed better control of his curveball, there is a chance he doubles with the pitch, but without the confidence to do so, Snell opted to go with the fastball and Frazier was ready for it.
Bottom line: It wasn't a mistake. Rather it was a good piece of hitting by Frazier and an at-bat that possibly shapes up differently if Snell’s curveball was sharper. With his lack of control evident early on, it is likely that Frazier had eliminated the curveball completely and was sitting solely on a fastball.
4th inning: Snell strikes out Clint Frazier to leave the bases loaded.
With the above in mind, let’s revisit that Frazier strikeout. Two outs into the fourth, Snell walked Gleyber Torres to load the bases. On deck was Clint Frazier, who had just taken him yard the inning prior.
In a normal playoff series with off days in between each game, I can’t help but wonder if Snell’s night might have been over. But, with a need to conserve arms in the bullpen, Kevin Cash stuck with his ace to get out of the jam. He did just that with an excellent sequence.
Here it is:
- 0-1: Curveball, low and inside for a strike
- 1-1: Curveball, low and in the dirt for a ball
- 2-1: Changeup, outside
- 2-2: Fastball, up and fouled off
- K: Slider, foul tip swing and miss
Snell begins the sequence by pitching Frazier backwards, but this time he does double up the curveball. Then, he lobs in a changeup to set up the fastball. Frazier was late on the following fastball to even the count, courtesy of a slowed bat that resulted from three consecutive offspeed pitches. Snell went to the slider, a pitch that Frazier hadn't seen yet and struck him out swinging on a foul tip. Snell lulled his bat to sleep with early offspeed and breaking pitches, then put him away with back to back hard stuff to keep the game within striking distance.
The leadoff hitter reached in four of the five innings Blake pitched
In the third and fifth innings, Snell surrendered leadoff homeruns to Clint Frazier and Kyle Higashioka respectively. In the first and fourth inning, Snell gave up leadoff singles, one of which came around to score.
Aside from the obvious negative implications that are associated with leadoff baserunners, the consistency with which Snell was working out of the stretch may have impacted the effectiveness of his curveball. While it is a subtle change, I believe going from the stretch to the windup early and often could have disrupted his timing and release point enough to result in the curveball being ineffective.
The Rays and Yankees play Game 2 of the ALDS tonight.