I’ll give y’all a warning: This is a very random article. It’s not like Blake Snell isn’t an interesting player; he’s a young arm who is going to be a pivotal piece of the Tampa Bay Rays rotation for a while. Even though he struggles to keep the ball in the zone, he has electric stuff and does a good job of keeping the hits he gives up in the ballpark. He was a highly-touted prospect and certainly delivered on that last year, striking out 24.4% of batters while delivering a 3.39 FIP in 89 innings.
However, there were some reasons to be concerned. Snell was very mediocre, according to Baseball Prospectus’ DRA (Deserved Run Average), which is widely considered to be one of the best measures of a pitcher’s ability. In 2016, he had a DRA of 4.58 with a DRA- of 108, with 100 being considered the average performance by a pitcher. He also struggled to keep batters off base, issuing 5.2 walks per nine and sporting a 1.62 WHIP. These are some legitimate reasons for concern, but I want to try to look at the positives, and that starts by looking at the pitches he throws. The reason scouts have been optimistic about Snell this whole time is because of his stuff. He was known for having a fastball with good velocity and movement, along with a plus slider and change-up that essentially made up for his control issues.
Looking at his 2016 numbers, Snell had a pretty bad fastball, giving up 1.02 runs per 100 pitches thrown, and it got smacked around to the tune of an .893 OPS. He only threw it in the zone 51.4% of the time, and when it was thrown in the zone, it got hit over 86% of the time, which can explain the OPS. That being said, there were positives here that shouldn’t be overlooked. Snell has ridiculous vertical movement on his fastball; 10.7 inches of rise according to the Baseball Prospectus leaderboard. In fact, he ranked fourth overall in fastballs thrown with a spin rate over 2500 RPM. The higher the spin rate, the more the ball tends to “rise” in the eyes of a hitter. Overall, 32.4% of his fastballs registered over 2500 RPM, and if you watch him pitch, you can see that his fastball, when located up in the zone, has a ridiculous amount of life, and makes even the most professional hitters look silly. Also, his fastball ranked in the 70th percentile (minimum 100 fastballs thrown) for whiffs with 19.7%. Snell’s change-up was actually his best pitch in terms of runs saved, saving 2.4 runs per 100 thrown, with good arm-side fade and a 9-mph velocity gap from his fastball. Now, this is where this article takes a strange turn, and leads into why I’m writing it in the first place.
Snell’s slider had the best whiff rate in the MLB last year. Batters missed it a whopping 56.2% of the time, six points better than the NL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer‘s slider. Wow! That’s amazing! Let’s check how many runs it saved!
Well, actually, it cost Snell 2.04 runs per 100 thrown…which registered it as one of the worst sliders in baseball. That doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Looking deeper, I found his slider got absolutely clobbered when it got hit; it had a 100% HR/FB ratio and got smashed with an .898 OPS when batters hit it. But hitters also missed it 56% percent of the time. Yet it got hit, a lot. We could continue that back and forth forever.
Well, it turns out this isn’t the only breaking ball Snell has. He has a slow, looping curve that clocks in at the low to mid 70s with a ton of vertical drop created by 12-6 movement. He threw both his slider and curve at nearly identical rates, 12% for the slider and 12.8% for the curve. If you look at scouting reports from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, you don’t see any mentions of his curve, just some blurbs about his slider and change-up being quality offspeed offerings. But, his curve was pretty damn good last year, ranking in the top five in runs saved per 100 thrown, with 2.2. It had sharp downward movement and comes out of the same arm slot as his slider, but is much slower, so it keeps batters off balance. It also held batters to a remarkable .162 OPS. It was truly one of the better curves in the game. Looking at this data, I’m left with a question: What do we make of this?
Before I attempt to answer that, I want to show a graph of Snell’s release points in 2016 — it will come up in the next paragraph.
Snell’s fastball has a ton of life, and is an absolutely nasty pitch when left up in the zone. If he’s throwing a “rising” fastball that comes out of the same arm slot as everything else (except the change), to me, it makes sense for him to throw his curve. His fastball becomes much harder to catch up to due to its movement if batters sit curve, and the velocity gap along with the drop he gets on his curve will get batters out if they sit fastball. The combination of the change of eye level, consistent arm slot, and the velocity difference will keep hitters off the entire game.
Not only is Snell improving both his fastball and curve this way, but he’s taking off the reliance on the slider by not having to throw a “bad pitch.” That being said, the slider still gets a ton of whiffs, but I would rather throw a pitch that batters can’t hit/do hit poorly in his curve than essentially taking a 50-50 shot of getting clobbered when throwing a slider. There’s no reason to stop throwing his change-up; it was his best pitch in 2016. It fills the velocity gap between the fastball and the curve and features movement away from righties, which is something he would otherwise lack. This brings me to my last point, and one more snippet of stats for you.
Snell’s slider vs. RHB: .650 SLG
Snell’s slider vs. LHB: .357 SLG
He threw his slider 9.7% of the time to righties. I’m not saying he should stop throwing it completely; there are obviously some redeeming qualities to it if he can get over 50% whiffs on on it. But if Snell can cut down on that slider usage and throw it more or less “exclusively” to lefties, he can eliminate the problem that he was having with it getting blasted. Since both breaking balls leave his hand at the same place, the deception will still be there, especially since batters will have to guess if it’s the harder, faster slider or the slower curve. If he can keep the walks down as well, we’re looking at a brand-new ace in the Rays rotation for 2017, assuming that throwing the better pitch can actually lead to success.