Tampa Bay Rays’ pitcher Blake Snell made his major-league debut on April 23, 2016 at the age of 23. The left-hander finished the season with a 6-8 win-loss record in 19 starts, but his ERA of 3.54 (ERA+ of 115), and SO9 of 9.9 suggested that he was better than that record. His 1.618 WHIP was pushed up by a high walk rate (5.2 BB9) and he averaged less than five innings per outing, only pitching past the sixth inning twice, so he clearly has some areas to improve on. He showed a modest platoon split, with right-handed batters putting up a .747 OPS against him while left-handers OPSed .656. The difference was mostly due to SLG (.387 for righties, .292 for lefties); no left-handed batters homered against Snell in 2016.
So far in 2017, Snell has made two starts, lasting 6 ⅔ and 4 ⅔ innings, and has put up a 3.18 ERA with a 1.147 WHIP but an unimpressive 6.4 BB9.
Snell’s curve is remarkable for its almost pure vertical movement. Compared to other left-handers who threw at least 125 curves in 2016 (Snell threw 219), his curve is about average in velocity at 76.5 mph, but has extreme vertical drop and almost no horizontal movement. In the chart below, Snell’s curve is shown in red. The only pitcher whose curve compares to Snell’s belongs to some guy called Clayton Kershaw (shown in blue); Kershaw’s has even more vertical drop, but has slightly more horizontal movement:
Pitch usage and trends. Snell varies his pitch use fairly significantly depending on the context. Right-handed batters see far more changeups than do left-handed batters (22.5% of pitches vs 2.6%), with his slider making up most of the difference (9.6% to RHB, 20.3% to LHB). When ahead in the count, he throws fewer fastballs and more curves; when behind, he almost abandons the curve (just 4.6% in 3-ball counts), going to his changeup instead:
Snell’s pitch repertoire changed somewhat game to game during the 2016 season; for example, his slider usage varied from 21.7% on August 5 to 1.6% on August 27. He maintained his fastball velocity well over the season. Interestingly, his curve and slider velocity crept up over the season. His curve sped up from 74.0 mph in his first game to 79.3 mph in his last, and his slider went from 82.7 to 85.6 mph:
Pitch value. Three of Snell’s pitches – his fastball (“FF”), slider (“SL”), and changeup (“CH”) – are about league-average in value (based on total bases per 100 pitches), and show moderate platoon splits. His fourth pitch is spectacular. Snell’s curve is far above league average in value, and only slightly worse by balls per 100 pitches. Fangraphs ranks his curve in the top ten in baseball, above Kershaw and Rich Hill. Although pitch value can’t be considered in a vacuum (for example, Snell’s curve may only be this effective because he limits its use), it seems possible that Snell might be advised to follow the Rich Hill path and increase his curve usage. However, so far in 2017, he has reduced his curve usage (just 4.8% of his pitches so far, although that is in a very small sample size):
Pitch location. Snell’s biggest weakness shows up in his pitch locations. Three of his pitches often ended up outside the strike zone. His slider typically falls out the bottom of the zone, and the lefty depends heavily on batters swinging and missing on the pitch. That worked well for right-handed batters, who swung and missed on 26% of his sliders (MLB average is 16.5% for sliders), but not so well against lefties (16.5%), to whom he threw more sliders in the first place. His curves and changeups to lefties also tend to drop out of the bottom of the zone, although to right-handed batters (who see more changeups) both pitches tend to be just inside the strike zone. His fastball contrasts well to his other pitches by targeting the top of the strike zone: