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Blake Snell is Breaking Out

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OAKLAND, CA - JULY 18: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on July 18, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JULY 18: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at Oakland Alameda Coliseum on July 18, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Blake Snell is showing his potential in a dominant stretch to open the 2018 season. What’s changed since his frustrating start to 2017, and how sustainable is this?

Expectations were high at the start of 2017 for Blake Snell as he tried to work his way out of the farm system and into the Rays rotation. But through his first eight starts last year, Snell struggled with his command, walking 25 batters in just 42 innings while posting a 4.71 ERA.

It was not the start the Rays were hoping for and they sent Snell down to triple-A Durham to work through his issues.

Snell was recalled for a start on June 28th against the Pirates and while he struggled in that game, he was terrific for the final three months of the season.

In his final 15 starts of 2017, Snell posted a 3.28 ERA with 79 strikeouts to just 29 walks, while showing an improved feel for his pitches and better control of the strike zone. Snell capped 2017 with an absolute gem against the Orioles, pitching seven shutout-innings with just two hits and a career-high thirteen strikeouts.

But which Blake Snell would we see in 2018?

Fortunately, Snell hasn’t missed a beat and has been utterly dominant through his first fourteen starts this season. He’s posted a 2.30 ERA to go with a 27.4% strikeout rate and a serviceable 7.7% walk rate.

Snell’s always been a high-strikeout guy, so he needs to limit walks in order to pitch deep into games and become an ace for the Rays.

While Snell has continued to improve on his showing from the second half of 2017, his development has come with a couple noticeable changes in his approach.

First, and most noticeably, his velocity is up significantly across the board.

Per Brooks Baseball, Snell was averaging 93.9 mph on his four-seamer during the first half of 2017. From July through the end of 2017, he had increased his average fastball velo to 95.1 mph. So far this year, the fastball is sitting at 96.2 mph.

His other pitches have followed suit: both the change-up and slider have increased by more than 3.5 mph and he’s throwing the curve over 4 mph faster than he was at the start of 2017.

These are significant changes. Snell is making a concerted effort to throw the ball harder, and he’s having great results. Hopefully that’s sustainable, but increased velocity usually brings increased injury risk. We’ll see.

The second thing is his change in pitch mix.

Elite velocity + command + optimal pitch mix = breakout

Snell has an elite slider which has produced an almost 60% swing rate, coupled with a 29.5% whiff rate this season, per Brooks Baseball. In other words, one of every two sliders Snell has thrown this year has generated a swing and miss; that’s really good.

For reference, Chris Sale’s slider is at a 44% whiff/swing rate, and Max Scherzer’s is a touch over 51%. Like I said; elite.

Additionally, Snell’s curveball has become almost as good as the slider, and he’s becoming more comfortable throwing it.

Per Fangraphs, Snell only threw his curve 10% of the time in 2017. This year, he’s throwing it 16% of the time and like the slider, it’s generating an elite 55% whiff/swing rate.

Along with the curve generating an elite whiff rate, batters haven’t able to hit the pitch hard or in the air. Just 7.4% of curves put into play by hitters have been fly-balls, and Snell has yet to allow a homer on the pitch.

However, whereas Snell throws his slider significantly more against lefties (24%) than against righties (8%), he’s getting comfortable using the curve regardless of batter handedness (14% v LHH, 17% v RHH).

Is this sustainable? Yes

Snell is figuring out how to optimize his pitch mix and the results have been exceptional. While the chances are slim that he holds on to a low-two’s ERA for the remainder of the year, we’re finally seeing Snell’s true talent level and potential.

The peripherals suggest that Snell has two elite pitches and is figuring out how to optimally use them to generate weak contact and whiffs. Barring injury, Snell’s breakout is absolutely sustainable and should give us Rays fans reason for optimism for his future.

Snell faces a tough test Thursday night in a hostile environment against the Yankees, but if he can get into a groove early, the Rays will be in position to start their road trip with a win.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays – The Trade for Wilmer Font

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