Pitcher Spotlight: Has Blake Snell Turned A Corner?

The 2017 season has not been kind to Blake SnellThe 24-year-old southpaw has been demoted to the minors multiple times while putting up ghastly numbers in the majors including a 4.42 ERA, 4.52 BB/9 and averaging just 5.4 innings per start. However, Sunday’s excellent outing of 7.0 IP, 0 ER, 2 Hits, 2 BBs, and 7 Ks against Seattle has been raising eyebrows, hinting at Snell’s massive upside we saw when he entered the major leagues in 2016. The question is, what did Snell do in this outing to succeed and can we expect this level of production to return in future starts?

Let’s dive into Sunday’s game against the Mariners to determine if Snell can be a dependable pitcher down the stretch. First here’s a quick overview of Snell’s approach for the afternoon.

Overall approach

The Mariners elected to feature seven right-handers and two left-handers against Snell, which meant we saw a lot of this through the entire game:

Even with the lineup turnover and seeing the same batters multiple times, Snell elected to hammer to outside corner with Fastballs and Changeups to start counts, often exclusively using the two pitches through the first three or four pitches of an at-bat. Often he would fall behind 1-0 or even 2-0 and turn right away to his Changeup, which was the savior of the outing. He had a great feel for his slow ball as he trusted it in all counts when needing a strike or a putaway pitch. For example, here’s a fantastic 3-2 Changeup to Carlos Ruiz that led to a strike-em-out-throw-em-out in the third frame:

For most of the season Snell has used a Slider as his favorite breaking ball. However, on Sunday he limited its use, reserving the pitch for the later innings to give hitters a new look, and mostly against left-handers. It’s a pitch that has potential, but it’s not polished enough for Snell to rely on it through the game and it tough counts. For example, he earned a first pitch strike against Ben Gamel, but couldn’t execute the pitch again in the 0-1 count. Despite its great movment, it just isn’t close enough to the zone to induce a swing:

Instead of his Slider, Snell has turned to his Curveball as of late, which we’ll dive into plenty in a moment. It’s a much stronger offering than his slide piece and Snell clearly had a better feel for his hook than his Slider. The one complaint I have isn’t about the pitch itself, but rather how he elected to go Fastball + Changeup more often, and I’m curious if that will change down the road.

Now that we understand what the repertoire Snell brought to the table for this start, let’s dive into to two of his pitches, specifically his Fastball and Curveball.

Fastball

It’s no secret that great pitching rests on a strong foundation of Fastball command. If pitchers are unable to locate their heater, walks are sure to follow, mistakes will be crushed, and batters can take better hacks at secondary pitches. Snell’s struggles through the season can be attributed to his lack of Fastball consistency, making Sunday’s success suggest that Snell found a feel for his Fastball and could maintain it in future outings.

Let me eradicate that notion by showing you the first pitch Snell threw in three straight at-bats:

As I alluded to earlier, Snell’s Changeup saved the day here as the pitch was able to mitigate plenty of 1-0 and 2-0 counts and getting much needed strikes. But this problem is more than just first pitch strikes. Take a look at these two pitches to end this at-bat against Tyler Motter:

Those are two poor Fastballs starting in a 2-1 count including a meatball 3-1 pitch and Snell escaped unscathed. This result is not going to happen often and Snell will be burned by it.

This mix of failing to get ahead early with his Fastball and failing to avoid constant mistakes in deeper counts is a recurring problem for Snell and don’t let Sunday’s beautiful line convince you that this has been fixed.

I can’t stress enough how this is a problem that needs a proper solution. There are different ways to approach this flaw – throwing more secondary pitches without the reliance of a Fastball early, maybe focus less on making the perfect pitches along the corner and trust its heat over the plate early in counts, or possibly elevating when ahead could be the answer – I don’t know what the perfect fit is. But something needs to change and it hasn’t yet.

Curveball

Here comes the fun part. Before talking about Snell’s Curveball in this outing against the Mariners, I want to set up what we’ve grown to expect from the pitch across the season. In Snell’s first 15 starts through August 10th, Snell used the pitch about 8.0% of the time, featuring a minuscule whiff rate of 6.5%. Here’s are great example of what we were dealing with as he threw a first pitch strike to Carlos Beltran back in May (Sidenote: You may notice that Snell is located at a different point on the rubber. This change happened on July 24th and to my knowledge hasn’t made a significant difference):

Snell used his Curveball as a the occasional fourth option, either to sneak in a first pitch strike or to get batters fishing when he didn’t want to use his Slider for whatever reason. It’s the pitch that’s there to keep batters honest, but not one that anchors your approach in any way.

But this has changed in Snell’s last two starts. Here’s what it’s looking like now:

Right off the bat, you can see the tighter break on the pitch. It’s being used the same way here to get the first strike of an at-bat, but it’s a much stronger offering that doesn’t hang up in the zone and even induces Robinson Cano to flinch in the box. Here’s another from Sunday’s outing:

Alright, this was especially filthy. Not only did Snell locate this pitch beautifully right under the strike zone (i.e. under the zone but not in the dirt), but he also had the confidence to use the pitch in a 0-1 count – completely unheard of prior when he used it mostly as a first-pitch option.

Remember that paltry 6.5% whiff rate? Snell has earned nine swings-and-misses in his 34 Curveballs thrown since, good for a 26.5% rate in his last two starts. Usage is up to 16.3%, swapping places with his Slider now sitting at 8.6%.

I feel the need to show more Curveball GIFs because it defines the interest in Blake Snell. It’s the pitch that will draw us in and consider what his possible ceiling could be. So here’s an excellent strikeout pitch to Carlos Ruiz:

And here he is getting Nelson Cruz to whiff on a 2-1 pitch:

Just watch that Cruz pitch again. If Snell can throw this pitch – bottom of the zone with fantastic sharp break – Snell can get by even without great Fastball command. Just throw it more than 20% of the time and he will get through innings. Not to mention how many strikeouts he’ll tally along the way.

This was just the first start that Snell flashed significant upside with his Curveball, far away from a sample size we can trust, but it proved that Snell did deserve some of success he got during his excellent outing against the Mariners. Let’s hope we see more of it.

Conclusion

I’m a bit on the fence here. On one hand, I’m infatuated by Snell’s improved Curveball and his greater reliance on the pitch over his Slider. On the other, he’s still struggling to command his Fastball, which is putting him in bad counts often and making it difficult to properly setup his Changeup and Curveball.  I wonder if introducing more secondary pitches can help hide this flaw, especially with a Curveball that batters struggle to hit even when located in the zone. Snell also had a good amount of favor go his way, with none of his mistakes punished and multiple hard hit balls finding gloves. Mariners batters hurt themselves often by swinging at bad pitches when ahead in the count, where simply being more patient would have kicked Snell out the game much earlier. Snell got away with poorly located Fastballs in deeper counts and he may not be able to get away with it in the future.

I like Snell as a flier to see if he can continue to build on his Curveball usage and compromise a little with his Fastball inside the zone, though without the consistency of hitting his spots with his Fastball, it’s tough to get on board.





Nick Pollack is the founder of PitcherList.com and has written for Washington Post, Fantasy Pros, and CBS Sports. He can be found making an excessive amount of GIFs on twitter at @PitcherList.

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Troutman
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Troutman

Great stuff! Welcome to Rotographs. I love listening to your podcast on Pitcherlist