It looked for a while like the Tampa Bay Rays’ pitching pipeline was drying up. Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos were starting games in 2014, and others like Alex Colome and Matt Moore were failing to impress this year. Alex Cobb was lost to Tommy John Surgery while Drew Smyly wore his labrum in his pitching shoulder. However, then Chris Archer stepped up, Jake Odorizzi, Erasmo Ramirez, and Nate Karns made major strides in their development, Smyly avoided surgery, and Moore got himself together at Triple-A. And that is before we get to the prospect side of the equation.
There we find Blake Snell, the 22-year-old lefty coming off as good of a season as you will ever see. He has been named the USA Today Minor League Player of the Year after a season that saw him go 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA and a 163-53 strikeout to walk ratio in 134 innings between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A. He began his season with 46 straight scoreless innings–bringing him to 49 straight counting the end of last season–and while there were some bumps in the road after that, none of them lasted for very long.
It was remarkable to watch Snell lower his walk rate at each subsequent level. He brought his free passes per 9 innings down from 4.7 at High-A to 3.8 at Double-A and just 2.6 at Triple-A. Snell has the arsenal to a topflight major league starting pitcher–a sinking fastball reaching the mid-90’s and two strong secondary pitches in his curveball and changeup–but his lack of command had scouts calling him a potential number three starter and not something more. Now the glass ceiling is gone and there is no telling how good Snell could be.
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The turning point for Snell came in a three-start stretch just after his scoreless streak had ended. On May 23rd, Snell allowed his first run of the season but rebounded to strike out 12 across six innings, giving up that lone run. Then he started slipping, pitching to a 3.78 ERA in his next 3 outings but walking 12 and giving up 3 home runs while striking out just 14 in 16.2 innings. His control issues were back, and it looked like he was about to regress significantly. The danger of having a hot streak like Snell had to start the year is how easy it is fall apart when the emotional high is gone.
But Snell never did regress, going 8-3 with a 1.79 ERA and an 83-20 strikeout to walk ratio in 13 starts and 65.1 innings after that stretch. Not once did his strikeout to walk ratio slip below 2-to-1, and it was 3-to-1 or better 11 times in those last 13 starts. He proved himself at the highest level of the minor leagues, and only the Tampa Bay Rays’ poor play down the stretch prevented him from making his big league debut this September. Instead, his electric left arm will next be bursting onto the scene next spring, when he pushes the Rays’ incumbents for a spot in the team’s starting rotation.
The next generation of Rays aces is on the way, and it is no less scary for opposing teams than those of previous years. Next up is Blake Snell, and the team is optimistic that Taylor Guerrieri and Brent Honeywell will not be too far behind. Snell began the season as another talented pitcher who had garnered inconsistent results but ended it as the best performing player in Minor League Baseball. And now the only question is how much longer the Rays can hold him back in the minors.