Ever since being drafted in the first round of the 2011 Major League draft, Blake Snell has often been seen as the future ace of the Rays rotation. With both past & present bearers of the title including David Price, Chris Archer, James Shields and Matt Garza to name just but a few, pressure was always likely going to be high for the young southpaw.
Coming into the 2017 season, there was quiet optimism that Snell would breakout and stamp his mark on the Rays 5 man rotation during a campaign which would hopefully challenge divisional rivals Boston & New York for the AL East crown. Unfortunately not all went to plan for Snell as he struggled with both his pitching mechanics and ability to locate regular good pitches. In his first 8 starts, Snell was unable to work beyond the 6th often battled inflated pitch counts early in games.
Despite showing clear promise and ability in 2017, Snell also demonstrated his big league naiveness and experience when struggling with his command for the early part of the year. After his struggles culminated in a 6 earned run outing with 6 hits and a further 3 walks in an eventual loss at home to the Boston Red Sox. Snell (0-4) was optioned to the Rays AAA affiliate, the Durham Bulls on May 13th. During his time with the Bulls, Snell recognised the Major League deficiencies which were costing him dearly in the show. That said, recognising a problem and fixing a problem are two totally different skills.
One of the main problems with Snell’s mechanics was the inconsistency of his release point, the product of a misaligned torso causing him to throw across his body. The result was a pitch by pitch struggle to locate the strike zone, something which any pitcher regardless of movement, stuff or speed can’t afford to do. The two charts below (courtesy of MLB Savant) really highlight the change in Snell’s pitching motion between 2017 and 2018. It’s clear to see that Snell really struggled to consistently release his pitches from the same spot, regardless of the pitch type. The outcome? A very sporadic pitch map across the strikezone, a key contributor to the 15 home runs he gave up in 2017 in just 129 innings.
In stark contrast, when looking at his 2018 release point chart, its clear to see that despite a relatively small sample size, that Snell’s release point is by far more consistent. A real benefit of this as well as providing Snell with a far more repeatable motion is that, its immediately harder for the opposing hitter to identity what pitch the Rays pitcher is throwing. For example when looking at his 2017 map, any lower, flatter arm action was more than likely to be an off speed change, or a taller, straighter arm was likely to be a curveball. Now look at his 2018 chart, and nearly every type of pitch is being thrown from nigh on the same release point
Further evidence of Snell’s altered release point is brilliantly demonstrated with his slider, a pitch responsible for a strikeout 14% of the time he throws it in 2018 (As of April 21st). In the first example, Snell is throwing a 1-2 slider to Yadier Molina. Snell is unable to stand up strong, thus sending his torso towards the thirdbase line. This in turn causes his arm to deliver the pitch from a far flatter, wider release point, making it increasingly harder to locate a good pitch.
In contrast, we see Snell pitching out of the stretch to Xander Boagerts in the Rays opening series. Snell is now able to stand up strong, plant his front leg and maintain a higher release point on his pitch. Notice the difference in the flex of his left knee. In 2017 Snell’s left knee is almost touching the dirt on the mound.
Despite having evidently improved his pitching mechanics, Snell’s development has come in multiple facets of his game. Something noticed by a follower of mine (@CallumCockerill) when I posed the question to Rays fan’s on twitter was the fact Blake has become less reliant on his fastball to get back into counts.
When looking at Snell’s pitch maps when behind in the count, its quite telling to see Snell’s desire to a) throw a fastball for a strike b) throw a fastball. Instead of throwing get me over fastballs over the heart of the plate in 2017, Snell is now able to locate his pitch on the corner of the plate when he opts for a fastball. Additionally, should Snell not opt for the heater, which is becoming increasingly common, the ability to not only get back into counts, but also strikeout hitters.
In 2018, Snell’s K/9 have risen from 8.3 to 11.00, something which is the product of him reducing his balls in play percentage from 27.2% to 21%. It remains to be seen whether Snell will live up to his top prospect billing, however he has undoubtedly improved 10 fold and provided Rays fans with a very exciting glimpse for the future.
Keep up the good work Blake.