- FanGraphs Fantasy Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy -

Snell’s Sluggish 2008

From the moment that Ian Snell (then named Ian Oquendo) was selected as a 26th-round afterthought in the 2000 amateur draft, he has had to fight an uphill battle to prove himself a capable major league starter. The Delaware native always possessed a live arm, but his diminutive stature (5-11, 198) gave scouts pause, and led many to predict that he would reside in the bullpen long-term. As Baseball America’s 2004 prospect handbook summed it up, “with his slight stature and two above-average pitches, he could wind up as a closer in the big leagues.”

As he breezed through the Pittsburgh farm system, however, Snell’s performance as a starter was too good to ignore. With 8.6 K’s per nine innings and 2.3 BB/9, Snell established himself as one of the most promising arms in the organization at the same time that high-pedigreed hurlers such as Bobby Bradley, John Van Benschoten and Sean Burnett fell by the wayside.

After a fairly promising 2006 season (4.58 FIP, 2.28 K/BB), Snell appeared to break through in 2007. His strikeout rate fell somewhat (from 8.18 in ’06 to 7.66 in ’07), but he trimmed his walks from 3.58 per nine innings to 2.94. He also made better use of his full arsenal of pitches, as worked in an 84 MPH changeup 10.2% of the time to supplement his 92 MPH fastball (52.5%) and 84 MPH slider (37.3%). With his HR/FB rate regressing from an astronomical 14.9% to 9.6%, Snell’s HR/9 figure dropped from 1.4 in 2006 to 0.95 in 2007. His FIP came in at a tidy 4.01.

After crossing the 200-inning threshold in ’07 and seemingly solidifying himself as the club’s ace, Snell did not fare near as well in 2008, as his ERA ballooned from 3.76 to 5.42.

While there some concerns that we’ll get to later, let’s focus on the positives first. Snell’s ERA was cringe-worthy, but it certainly overstated the extent of his struggles. His K rate remained relatively stable (7.39) and his FIP was a little worse than league-average, at 4.57. As Peter chronicled earlier, Snell was one of many Pittsburgh hurlers who suffered in front of an iron-gloved Bucco defense (19th in UZR at -17.8, 28th in Defensive Efficiency). Snell’s .358 BABIP was the second-highest mark among all qualified starters- only Kevin Millwood (.366) fared worse on balls put in play.

So, Snell wasn’t near as bad as his ERA or won-loss record would have you believe. Still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some negatives to take out of his season. His walk rate jumped significantly, up to 4.87 per nine innings. Not surprisingly, Snell’s first-pitch strike percentage fell from 63.7% in 2007 to 56.5% in 2008; that put him in the same range as Livan Hernandez and Daniel Cabrera.

Generally speaking, a shoulder injury for a pitcher may materialize in decreased velocity, while an elbow malady is characterized by loss of control. Snell appears to fit that line of thought, as he hit the DL in late June with a strained right elbow. I’m not going to attempt to predict Snell’s health going forward, but it seems plausible that he could cut his free passes to a more tolerable level if the elbow is healed up.

Snell’s pitch selection also shifted in ’08, and not necessarily for the better . He increased his fastball usage nearly ten percent (from 52.5% to 62.2%), while still relying heavily on his slider (32.7%). Snell cut the use of his changeup in half, using the pitch only 5.1% of the time this past season.

One criticism that Snell faced as he climbed the ladder was his lack of a third offering. The 27 year-old uses his changeup reluctantly, instead preferring to focus on his fastball/slider mix against both lefties and righties. Without a pitch that reliably moves away from opposite-handed batters, Snell as had his share of problems with left-handed hitters. They hit him relatively hard in 2007 (.284/.353/.447), but 2008 was much worse: southpaws facing Snell transformed into Joe Mauer, scorching him to the tune of .314/.415/.498. Snell’s change doesn’t look like a bad pitch, dropping about four inches more in the zone than his fastball (the league average is about 2.9). Perhaps Snell doesn’t trust his changeup, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to mix a few more in there against the lefties.

Going forward, Snell will almost certainly post a much lower ERA in 2009. Even if he were to continue walking a bunch of batters, his peripherals suggest he would be a league-average starter. If his elbow is mended and his control improves, he could compile another FIP in the low fours. That’s not headline-grabbing, but it’s certainly useful. However, if Snell is going to take the next step, he’s going to have to find a way to keep those pesky southpaws at bay.