Blake Snell’s hidden improvements

The Tampa Bay Rays’ 2011 entry draft set records for amounts of players taken early, thanks to the now changed rules about supplementary picks (free agents qualifies as A or B types, and the team they left would get compensated with first round picks or picks in the compensatory round, between the first and second). It’s always fun to go back and see how different the landscape of the league would change with different draft choices, and the Rays missed out multiple times on guys like Jackie Bradley Jr., Michael Fulmer, Trevor Story, Josh Bell and Austin Hedges, just in the first couple of rounds. But they did come away with some decent prospects, and perhaps the most exciting of the bunch has been the 6’4 lefty Blake Snell.

Snell was the second most hyped pitcher from the draft, before Taylor Guerrieri hit some speed bumps with injuries and suspension, derailing his track to the Show. In the minors, Snell was consistently striking out upper 20% of the batters faced, thanks to an awesome fastball and a good curve. He had some issues with control and pitch economy, caused a lot by staying stiff with his front leg and side overall.

His first taste of the big leagues, with 16 starts in 2016, saw some promising and immediate results – A 3.54 ERA with an even better 3.39 FIP and he tore up hitters with a 24.4% strikeout rate, although saw his control issues stick with him at a 12.7% walk rate. This hinted as one of the game’s potential breakout stars, but his 2017 season saw a sophomore slump, 4.04 ERA with just 21.8% strikeouts, although an improved 10.8% walk rate.

Snell was virtually the same pitcher year to year with his repertoire and velocity, but we saw his zone percentage dive from an already low 40.1% to just 36.7%. Whether this was an attempt to get more chases, or if he just struggled more with his control, it didn’t work and opposing hitters feasted off of it.

But the entire year wasn’t as bad as I perhaps have made it out to be. His ERA in May was 6.89 and in June it was 10.80, both just miserable numbers. But then it dropped to 3.80 in July, 2.97 in August, and finished with a 3.23 to round out the year.

So what’s driving this change? Before we get into the finer game tactics, we can see Snell switched up his side of the rubber where he planted. In his entire major league career up until this point, he had pitched from the third base side of the rubber. But in July 2017, he moved to the first base side where he started to see improvements. This is visualized graphically below:

With this change he actually saw a slight uptick in velocity as well, which also helped lead to his three-month increasing strikeout rates of 21.1%, 22.8%, and then 26.5%. This is seemingly unrelated to his pitch choice, as he showed no discernible change in selection over the course of the year. But the new eye angle did help, and it’s shown with swing rates on the pitches thrown. Moving closer to first base keeps him farther from the majority of right-handed batters that he faces, and helps him hide the ball longer in his windup. It’s a tactic David Price has employed, multiple times in fact, and one that can work with the right approach. Below are the swing rates on Snell’s different pitches:

This is one to read a little less literally and view the trends as a whole. It might be hard to tell with the lines intersecting at many points in the year, but the key point is that they all share an upward slope, meaning more swings on his pitches. It’s important to recall his low zone percentage to see this importance, where he is getting hitters to swing more often while hitting the zone with a low frequency? This has led to a large number of chases, and in turn strikeouts, which is how he has been getting that mojo back.

Snell’s control may always be somewhat of an issue, but it looks like even with the decrease in zone percentage he has turned another corner in regards to walks. His first half walk rate was 14.5%, and his second half rate fell down close to league average at 8.0%.

Blake Snell has made a pretty major adjustment, but it isn’t one that you would easily notice just by catching a few games here and there. Changing horizontal release points isn’t too common, but it has a precedent for being an effective switchup for guys in similar spots to Snell. His season debut was fantastic, and the rest of the season should bring more of the same. As for his disastrous second start, it’s April and it was at Yankees Stadium so give him a mulligan. That game may actually give fantasy owners a chance to buy-low before his next start against the White Sox.

 

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James Krueger

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James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.