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Blake Snell’s 2019 season: A real head-scratcher for Rays fans

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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19: Manager Kevin Cash #16 of the Tampa Bay Rays takes the ball from Blake Snell #4 during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19: Manager Kevin Cash #16 of the Tampa Bay Rays takes the ball from Blake Snell #4 during the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on June 19, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
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Tampa Bay Rays’ ace and 2018 Cy Young award winner Blake Snell’s recent struggles have left many scratching their heads… here is a deep dive into his puzzling 2019.

If you were to look at Blake Snell’s numbers this season and compare them to last season you would be left scratching your head just as I was after diving into his tendencies and results.

After his most recent start in which he only recorded 1 out and surrendered 6 earned runs, I too was left speechless. What was there to say? CyZilla had gone from making Major League hitters look foolish en route to a league leading 1.89 ERA in 2018 to a middling 4.40 ERA in 2019 through 15 starts.

At times he has looked un-hittable, and at times (5) he hasn’t made it out of the 5th inning. Maybe he was due to regress after a historic campaign, but he has the stuff to maintain the dominance we became accustomed to last season. Despite the inflated stat line, Snell hasn’t necessarily regressed in 2019. Instead, he has changed some of his tendencies which has (in my opinion) led to some undesired results.

If you weren’t scratching your head before, you are now and rightfully so. In doing research, I was also shocked to stumble upon certain bits of information which make his 2019 struggles all the more mysterious. It would be easy to say that he has regressed simply by looking at his numbers, but it really isn’t all that true.

When I say that he hasn’t regressed, I am not implying that he has pitched better in 2019, he hasn’t. What I am saying is that all of his pitches– yes, all– have become more devastating. As devastating as they may be though, the results haven’t followed. That is the head scratching part in all of this… how can a pitcher’s already dominant four pitch mix become even filthier yet get hit at a higher clip? It has been a strange season indeed for Blake Snell.

Before diving into his tendencies, let’s take a look at the bigger picture first.

Season Breakdown:

Realistically, Blake Snell has looked like Cyzilla more times than not this season. His successes have been largely marred by 5 separate starts.

Here is a breakdown of Blake’s season so far:

His first 4 starts (Includes Opening Day)

  • 25 IP // 2.16 ERA // 36K/4BB
  • Opposing batters hit .176 and compiled an .555 OPS

*3 Starts after Opening Day

  • 19 IP // 0.47 ERA // 33K/2BB
  • Opposing batters hit .143 and compiled a .376 OPS
  • I wanted to isolate these three starts between to show just how good he was.

After 4 starts, Snell fell victim to a piece of furniture and broke his toe. He returned 10 days later and surrendered 10 runs (9 earned) in 6.1 IP across a pair of starts versus the lowly Royals. After two rocky starts, Cyzilla returned:

Starts 7-11, May 6th -29th 

  • 30.1 IP // 1.78 ERA // 42K/8BB
  • Opposing batters hit .196 and compiled a .539 OPS

But, since May 29th Snell hasn’t been the same.

Starts 12-15, June 4th-19th 

  • 14 IP// 10.29 ERA // 18K/11BB
  • Opposing batters hit .317 with a .900 OPS
  • He did make one nice start against Boston during this stretch (6IP, 7K, 1 ER, W)

What happened? What changed? In short, he started walking more people. He fell behind in counts and had to pound the zone with hittable pitches and in turn he got hit…

Still, the most confusing part about his season to this point is that in 10 of his first 15 starts he has been serviceable if not dominant. Yet, 5 times this season he has appeared unrecognizable on the mound. The inconsistency we have witnessed in 2019 is unlike anything we saw in 2018…

So…what changed?

The most obvious difference is that he is throwing the fastball less in 2019.

There is an old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Apparently, Blake Snell hasn’t caught on since he is throwing his fastball 10.4% less than last season, during which he held opposing batters to a .178 AVG. This season, batters are hitting .236 against the southpaw.

Blake Snell is at his best when he is challenging hitters with his fastball that averages better than 95 MPH and 2018 was proof of that. Yet, in 2019 he has moved away from challenging hitters with the fastball.

This change is most evident against left handed hitters:

Usage % against LHH 2018//2019:

Fastball: 58.4%//41.2% (17.2% less)

Curveball: 15.3%//23.0% (7.7% more)

Slider: 26.3%//35.8% (9.5% more)

Changeup: (STATCAST did not register any changeups vs LHH in 2018, 2019)

There is a huge shift from the fastball to breaking balls against left handed hitters in 2019 and the results are devastating. Lefties struggled mightily in 2018 hitting only .135 against Snell, but in 2019 they are hitting a robust .310.

A similar shift is evident against right handed hitters, against whom Blake is throwing 8.6% fewer fastballs and 9.5% more curveballs. After hitting .188 against Snell in 2018, right handed hitters are now hitting at a .223 clip.

For Blake to return to his dominant form, he will have to begin relying in his fastball again.

Head scratching stuff…

Blake’s shift away from his fastball is an entirely plausible explanation as to why he has struggled at times in 2019. But, earlier I mentioned that his stuff has become even more devastating, and it has. While it sounds ridiculous to think that his stuff is better this season than it was last season… it is partially true.

Let me explain… Whiff% is a representation of the percentage of swinging strikes a pitcher generates. Despite Blake’s struggles in 2019, he is generating more swings and misses than he did last season.

Whiff% per pitch in 2018//2019:

Fastball: 25%//26.5% (1.5% more)

Curveball: 53.4%//55.1% (1.7% more)

Changeup: 31%//44.4% (13.4% more)

Slider: 48.3%//59.5% (1.2% more)

While the gains are mostly marginal, Blake Snell’s 4 pitch mix is technically getting even filthier. But, if 2019 is any proof, “filth” in terms of whiffs doesn’t always translate into success. Sure, hitters are swinging and missing more against all of his pitches, but they are also hitting for a higher average across the board.

OppAvg per pitch in 2018//2019:

Fastball: .222//.286 (+.066)

Curveball: .126//.175 (+.049)

Changeup: .195//.234 (+.039)

Slider: .096//.222 (+.126)

How could I possibly explain an uptick in whiffs yet a parallel rise in opponents average? I can’t. Maybe he is making more mistakes in the zone. Maybe he is getting away with less mistakes than he did in 2018. Maybe he is falling into predictable patterns. Maybe he is tipping his pitches. Maybe it is all of the above or maybe it is none. It is impossible to tell.

If his struggles continue, then I will continue to scratch my head because his 4 pitch mix is still among the game’s best. For whatever reason, last year’s AL Cy Young has been inconsistent in 2019 and I wouldn’t be surprised if it is due to the larger reliance he has placed on a “feel pitch”. On any given start he could be lacking feel for a pitch that he has put so much stock into in 2019.

The most logical explanation is that while he may be inducing more swings and misses, he is pitching to different sequences due to the shift from fastballs to breaking balls. Instead of dominating hitters early with the fastball, Snell is pitching backwards and getting hit. The change in philosophy may indeed generate more swinging strikes but at the same time leave Snell more vulnerable to the potent offenses of the American League.

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In 2019 Snell has looked like Cyzilla more times than not. His stuff hasn’t changed but his  tendencies have. Maybe, if he reverts back to his 2018 tendencies the inconsistencies would fade and we could witness another historic second half.

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