clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rays Season Preview: What will Blake Snell be in 2020?

Snell had a historic 2018, but regressed in 2019... or did he?

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Who could forget Blake Snell’s magical 2018 season?

After two years of inconsistency at the major league level, the latter including a demotion to reset his body and mind in Triple-A, Snell cemented himself as one of Major League Baseball’s elite starting pitchers, edging out Justin Verlander for the Cy Young Award.

In all, that season Snell pitched to a microscopic 1.89 ERA in 31 starts, striking out nearly 32% of the batters he faced. Not only was his run prevention elite—so was his skillset that produced the results.

In 2019, however, Snell again struggled to find consistency out of the gate, suffering a fluke injury right when he started to get into a groove. Even upon returning, he just couldn’t seem to string together a run of dominant starts the way he did the year prior.

Disaster then (nearly) struck when Snell needed elbow surgery—luckily not the kind named after a certain ex-MLB pitcher—that put him on the shelf for nearly two months. In short, it seemed like a disappointing campaign, especially after the one that netted him a record breaking 5 year, $50MM extension in the spring.

Here’s the breakdown of his recent years:

Blake Snell 2018-19

2018 31 180.2 21-5 1.89 46 7.4
2019 23 107.0 6-8 4.29 96 1.4

ERA- scales a pitcher’s ERA to the league average, and then makes a park adjustment. It works the same as traditional ERA (lower is better) and sets the league average to 100. The farther a pitcher away a pitcher is away from that mark, the better or worse he is than average. With a 46 ERA- mark in ‘18, Snell was historically great, but his 96 ERA- in ‘19 was just slightly better than the rest of the league. On the surface at least, it Snell appeared to have taken quite a step back.

But you didn’t come here for the surface level numbers did you? No, you didn’t. You want the good stuff!

Now, it’s important to note that Snell’s ‘18 was not completely smoke and mirrors, but a couple of metrics did suggest that, even if all Snell’s skills remained intact, there would be some regression in terms of preventing runs. Seasons like Snell’s 2018 just don’t come together that often.

Blake Snell 2018-19

Year ERA ERA- LOB% Lg Avg HR/FB% Lg Avg BABIP Lg Avg
Year ERA ERA- LOB% Lg Avg HR/FB% Lg Avg BABIP Lg Avg
2018 1.89 46 88.0% 72.8% 10.7% 12.7% .241 .293
2019 4.29 96 71.6% 72.3% 15.4% 15.3% .343 .296

LOB% refers to the rate of baserunners stranded by a pitcher, HR/FB% refers to the rate in which fly balls surrendered by a pitcher become home runs, and BABIP refers to Batting Average on Balls In Play.

Snell was elite in all of these categories in ‘18, ranking 1st, 11th and 2nd, respectively. Unlike FIP and K% though (which I will discuss later), these metrics are not for the most part skill based, and tend to regress to the league average over a long enough sample, meaning that season-to-season differences in them have little predictive value.

Put another way, while good pitchers are a little bit better at stranding runners than bad pitchers are, that’s really just because they are good pitchers all the time. There is no significant difference between major league pitchers in their ability to pitch better than their norm while runners are on base.

Snell is a good pitcher, but an 88% LOB% is absurd, and should always be expected to regress.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As illustrated by his ‘19 results, that is exactly what happened, with Snell’s LOB% and HR/FB% being right around league average, and with his BABIP overcorrecting a bit.

The interesting note around HR/FB is that, with the much-discussed juiced ball, the entire league went homer-happy. In most years, the 15% number that Snell put up in 2019 would have been higher than average. In 2019 it was exactly what one would expect.

So even with a similar skillset, year-over-year, and a full season of health, Snell was likely going to give up more runs, if only due to the extremely positive nature of the noisy portions of his ‘18 sample.

But here’s the good news.

Despite the injuries, the ups and downs, and the bloated ERA (relatively speaking), Snell was largely the same pitcher in ‘19 as the one who was voted the American League’s best hurler the year before, at least on a rate basis.

The following table contains metrics that do have some predictive value, and thus lay out some encouraging promises for Snell’s 2020 outlook, as his various peripheral stats in ‘19 were either on par or slightly better than in they were in ‘18.

Snell Peripherals 2018-19

2018 180.2 1.89 46 31.6% 2.95 72 3.16 75 4.8
2019 107.0 4.29 96 33.3% 3.32 75 3.31 73 2.7

Snell not only missed more bats in ‘19, he comfortably remained one of the best pitchers in baseball by way of FIP- and xFIP-.

FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, measures the outcomes a pitcher has more control over—walks, strikeouts, and home runs (so note that the HR bonanza of 2019 elevated everybody’s FIP). xFIP, or Expected Fielding Independent Pitching, normalizes a pitcher’s FB/HR% to the league rate in order to further reduce noise. Both metrics are scaled to ERA in order to be easily digestible, while FIP- and xFIP- work the same way as the aforementioned ERA-.

So while Blake Snell regressed in ‘19, he also didn’t. He allowed more runs, but either stayed the same or improved in some key underlying categories, also known as ‘peripherals.’ And since FanGraphs WAR calculation is FIP based, had Snell matched his innings total from ‘18, he would have produced similar WAR value.

Further, his batted ball metrics tell a similar story:

Snell Statcast Metrics 2018-19

Year wOBA xwOBA percentile HardHit% percentile Barrel%
Year wOBA xwOBA percentile HardHit% percentile Barrel%
2018 0.246 0.273 87th 32.2 73rd 7.2
2019 0.301 0.264 92nd 32.0 83rd 4.7


These are the questions we need to ask ourselves: was Blake Snell more lucky in 2018, or more unlucky is 2019? Should we go into 2020 believing his CY Young campaign was buoyed by some noisy metrics, or rather that he actually is among the game’s elite starting pitchers?

Projections favor the latter to both these questions, as they are generally informed by peripherals rather than actual runs allowed. While ZiPS is a little more wary on Snell in terms of volume, Steamer projects Snell to be a top 10 pitcher for the upcoming season:

Blake Snell Projections 2020

Steamer 32 13-9 179.0 3.39 3.48 4.3
ZiPS 26 11-7 135.1 3.33 3.24 3.7

Since Snell’s skillset and run predictors remained intact in ‘19, we can reasonably count on him to be one of the baseball’s best starting pitchers once again in ‘20. He will need to recapture some fortune if he plans to repeat is ‘18 success, but who isn’t the best without at least a little bit of luck, right?