Tampa Bay Rays Starter Blake Snell Makes His MLB Debut

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While the Tampa Bay Rays lack the firepower of some teams in the AL East, they are stocked when it comes to pitching. They proved that once again on Saturday, when they relied on a young pitcher to make his MLB debut against the New York Yankees. Ian York breaks down Tampa Bay Rays starter Blake Snell’s first start and comes away impressed despite one possible weakness.

Left-handed pitcher Blake Snell was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the first round of the 2011 MLB First Year Player Draft, and made it to the majors for his first start this weekend, April 22 against the Yankees. Although the Rays lost the game 3-2, it wasn’t Snell’s fault: In his 5 innings, he gave up only one run on two hits and a walk, while striking out six.

Prospect watchers have been excited about Snell, especially since his 2015 season when, at the age of 22, he leapt from A+ ball to AAA and dominated at each level. There was plenty of evidence to support the excitement in his major-league debut.

Snell throws four pitches: four-seam fastball (“FF”), changeup (“CH”), slider (“SL”), and curve (“CU”). Of his 90 pitches on Saturday, 59 were fastballs, 16 were curves, 10 were changeups, and 5 were sliders. (I have manually reclassified these pitches from PITCHf/x’s classifications, which were not very accurate.) Here is how his pitches cluster based on speed, break length, and break angle:

His fastball averaged a very healthy 94.8-mph, peaking at 96.8-mph. His slider and change both have good separation from his fastball, averaging 82.8 and 83.5-mph respectively, and his change is the classic slow, high-break version, averaging 74-mph and with more vertical than horizontal break.

Velocity and movement are nice, but for all but the most extreme pitches, location is more important – and Snell showed very good location as well. Here are his pitch locations for left- and right-handed batters, shown from the umpire’s viewpoint and with the 2015 strike zones shown as grey polygons:

He did an excellent job of keeping his pitches away from the center of the strike zone, mainly targeting the top of the zone with all his pitches. By using the top of the zone, Snell was able to frequently drop his curve down into the strike zone, very effectively drawing called strikes with it.

Snell’s fastball is particularly intriguing for two reasons. First, as the 3D chart above shows, the fastball has a wide range of break angles. Most have the typical arm-side break expected from a four-seam fastball (a negative angle for left-handed pitchers), but the range is very wide, and some of his fastballs actually have glove-side break like a cutter, even though they are still thrown with four-seam velocity. We can compare the fastballs with the maximum and minimum break angles, looking at movement from the top view, side view, and umpire’s viewpoint. In these charts, the path that each pitch would take in the absence of spin (that is, under the influence of gravity alone) is shown as a solid line. The pitch with the maximum (cutter-like) break is shown in red:

As well as the horizontal break, notice the extreme vertical movement Snell achieved (in the side view, the amount of divergence from the solid lines). This is huge. PITCHf/x uses break length to infer the amount of spin put on pitches to achieve that amount of break, and for Snell’s fastballs, the inferred backspin was 2,944 RPM. For comparison, in 2015 the left-handed pitcher with the highest spin rate on his fastball was Enny Romero, with a significantly lower 2,878 RPM.

There is one possible caution flag from Snell’s first start. His release point was both inconsistent, with pitches coming from a wide range of positions, and worryingly different for his curveball, which he released from a significantly higher point than his other pitches. Here are his release points, compared to another left-handed pitcher with a similar repertoire, Wade Miley. (Miley throws a two-seam fastball (“FT”) as well as a four-seam, which helps compensate for the fact the Snell’s fastballs are so variable in their movement.) The top charts show individual pitches from Snell’s start and from a single one of Miley’s starts (May 8, 2015 vs. Toronto); the bottom charts show the average positions, with the dots sized to pitch frequency:

I am not a major-league batter, but it seems to me that the release point of Snell’s curve is something that hitters might well be able to pick up on as a “tell”, which would make his curve a much less effective weapon.

Aside from that one issue, Snell’s debut was extremely impressive not only for its results, but from the details of each pitch. It will be interesting to see his progress as the league develops a scouting report on him.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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