Normalizing Expectations Regarding Blake Snell | The Process Report

Normalizing Expectations Regarding Blake Snell

I get that folks are upset about the start to Blake Snell‘s career. He has shown an inability to work deep into games due to elevated pitch counts. It obscures that he is striking out a ton of guys and exceptionally limiting the long ball. The trade off has been deep counts and the walks that come with those. The results belie a tremendous repertoire of three legitimately above average pitches, but Blake is still a young man. He has plenty of growth ahead. Those that think this is the final stop need to get off the bus and head to the train station. Bright lights await this future ace.

Don’t belive me? How many great pitchers started out that way from day one? I don’t know, I’m sure a lot. I doubt that number represents anything near a majority, simple or otherwise. To that end, let’s look at who the best lefty starters have been over the last decade using WAR provided by Fangraphs:

Pretty good list. I’m sure fans would be happy to have any of those guys in their rotation, but take yourself back to the beginning of the career for each of these gents. Across their first 25 starts few of these guys gave the sort of performance that would indicate the selves they would ultimately morph into once they had a chance to stabilize in a big league rotation. Let’s compare these guys in a few different ways.┬áSabathia and Buehrle will be outside the scope of this analysis due to careers starting prior to good ball in play data being tracked. I am excluding Sale, because he got the chance to get his feet wet out of the pen for a substantial portion of his early career.

It’s true that Blake is going fewer innings than these guys, which further causes him to faced less batters overall. This affects his counting stats, but you can see that compared to these pillars of the community he is giving up fewer hits and runs, while walking as many as the most and striking out guys in the middle. We can remove some of this batters faced bias by looking at percentages and ratios:

Guys like Jon Lester and Cliff Lee were known for their pinpoint command and control, but it is not as if their careers started that way. Both walked nearly as many guys as Snell, and you can throw Gio Gonzalez into that soup, as well. Gio joins Kershaw, Snell and Liriano amongst the guys that get the highest rates of punch outs, too. Level these things with K-BB% and you can see that Snell is right there with the best and wellllll ahead of the worse. Additionally his batting average against compares favorably to these other pitchers once you see his high BABIP only bested by Gio. Snell has his warts, but even some of the best pitchers in recent history show similar patterns. Let’s go to some results-based metrics:

While all of these pitchers went on to have great careers very few of them showed the kind of ERA/FIP/xFIP that would portend that future success. Blake’s ERA and FIP compare very favorably to some of the best in the game. His xFIP and SIERA show some disagreement that can mostly track to his very good home run per fly ball rate. Perhaps that is an indicator that future Blake is going to yield more homers as he starts to make his way into the zone more. Walks aren’t the worst outcome, but there is also a chance that he can continue to outstrip the average even if not quite at this current pace. Let’s look at some plate discipline stuff:

Snell is already garnering out of zone swings as well as these guys, and his in zone swinging rate is amongst the best of this group. Moving down to contact you can see that he is getting a bunch of pitches put in play that originate out of the zone. Generally a good thing. Furthermore, his zone contact rate is as good as any of these guys other than Liriano who takes it to another level. Something of particular interest is the divergence between his Zone% and his F-Strike%. He’s laying it in there on first pitch about as often as the average of these guys, but after that he seems to fall apart with a well below average number of pitches finding the zone. Lastly, his swinging strike rate bests these titans by a good bit. Only Liriano looks like a monster, and he is another guy that had a dozen or so bullpen appearances early on to help him find his sea legs. How about ball in play:

Other than Lee and Lester the others were quite good at getting grounders compared to fly balls to start their careers. Snell isn’t getting grounders at the rate of those other guys, but he’s also not giving up a crazy amount of fly balls, either. Additionally, a full ten percent of those fly balls are turning into pop ups that stay on the infield, which are every bit as good as a strikeout. The big minus here is the line drive rate, but those also show the most variation in smallish samples like this. Perhaps that will correct, but Cliff Lee and Jose Quintana, to lesser extents, dealt with the same issue early on. Possibly contributing to his outrageous BABIP is all those balls going for hits that stay on the infield. Hard to put that on the guy throwing the pill.

Blake is doing a great job of avoiding letting hitters pull against him, where the most damage is often done. He’s allowing the most contact to the opposite field AND up the middle. We saw this last night where the Marlins made a conscious effort to start going opposite field in the middle innings, and they saw a good bit of success, as well. While Blake has done an exceptional job of drawing soft contact, he is also allowing the second most hard contact leaving little room in the middle. It seems odd that his balls in play go to the extremes with few in the middle as far as quality of contact, but here we are.

The walks continue to be a problem, but there are worst outcomes. Guys like Gio Gonzalez and Francisco Liriano have been able to balance high walk rates with good total production throughout their careers. If this is who Blake Snell will always be then that’s something like a mid-rotation to backend starter. Right now. That’s a nice rotation piece going forward. However, all of these pitchers were able to put early issues aside to become amongst the best in the game. Why would Blake be different? He has the stuff. He has the frame. He has the work ethic and the brain. Many folks waited through the growing pains, because the future was bright. Those people were rewarded for their patience.

How about we give Blake some time to figure it out before writing him off as a “mental midget” or saying that he has “no business pitching in the Show“. You’ve got to be some kind of stupid to think these thoughts, but like every other fanbase the Rays have their share of ill-informed fans that know so little about the game that they have no business discussing it. Blake Snell is going to be a very good pitcher. He already is. With plenty of gears to climb. Let’s give him time to adjust to the best hitters on the planet and quit whining about what he is not.




  1. Rick Watson wrote:

    The best example of all is a lefthander by the name of Sandy Koufax. Many feel he was the best LHP of all time. He had 5 unbelievably dominating years before his career was cut short at 30 due to an arm injury. Now go look at his first few years in the majors.

  2. Excellent piece. You’ve convinced me we should keep in in the bigs. I’m just wondering if it wouldn’t help him (and the team) if he were moved to the bullpen, and replaced by Erasmo or Chase until he gets better at picking up the same amount or more outs with fewer pitches, or through the end of the season, whichever comes first?

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