Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Which Snell Will We See In 2020?

Twitter: @RaysBaseball

It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons; it was the age of dominance, it was the age of mediocrity; it was the epoch of success, it was the epoch of chaos. The last two years for Cy Young award winner Blake Snell really have been a Tale of Two Seasons.

Snell’s downturn is one of the most enigmatic struggles in baseball. Besides allowing a greater rate of baserunners and runs in 2019 than in ‘18, not much has changed. According to Baseball Savant’s Player Ranking feature, Snell looked about the same in both years.

Baseball Savant

The only significant visual differences are regressions in curve spin (53 RPM) and exit velocity (1 MPH).

By surface level production stats, Snell’s 2019 season was a catostrophic step back from what he proved he could do in 2018. A 0.97 WHIP became 1.27, and a 1.89 ERA more than doubled to the 4.29 he put up last year. Interestingly, both seasons look much more similar than ERA and WHIP would suggest. More advanced descriptive ERA-scaled stats confirm my initial thought from those Baseball Savant rankings: there was not much of a difference between Snell’s Cy Young season and the injury-marred sequel.

20182019Difference
FIP2.953.32+0.37
xFIP3.163.31+0.15
SIERA3.303.56+0.26
xERA3.063.02-0.04

There was one change that normally shouldn’t stand out too much, but it proved fatal here. Two years ago, 44.7% of batted balls were hit on the ground compared to 39% last year. When factoring walks and strikeouts, that means that 32.8% of plate appearances resulted in a ball being hit in the air in 2018 and 35.1% in 2019. A difference of not even 2.5% surely shouldn’t be the reason a 1.89 ERA becomes a 4.29, but it is with all that fly balls entailed last year.

Was Snell’s Decline Really His Fault? Kind Of, But Not Entirely

That corresponds to an increase in launch angle, which averaged 14.5° in 2019, up from 10.3. This disparity is magnified when considering the varied circumstances of each season: the balls were “juiced” in 2019, resulting in record numbers of home runs around the league. It’s well-documented that the average drag force (air resistance) on the baseball had dropped from previous years. The basic principle behind this is that drag opposes the ball’s motion: with less of it, the ball travels farther (which explains all the home runs across MLB). So despite allowing a lower rate of hard hit balls, Snell’s HR/FB% skyrocketed from 10.7 to 15.4. This obviously wasn’t an isolated issue, as the league average HR/FB% was a nearly identical 15.3.

Because of this unexpected artificially boosted offensive environment, Snell underperformed all of his major “x” stats. These are more theoretical than their their paired counterparts (xwOBA vs wOBA, xFIP vs Fip, etc.). In the real world, Snell was a 4.29 ERA pitcher with a 3.32 FIP and .301 wOBA against; he was expected to have a 3.02 ERA, 3.31 FIP, and .264 wOBA. Based on the components of xFIP and xWOBA, including K, BB, and HR, here are the formulas for xERA and xwOBA.

Another factor to consider is that he had been pitching with loose bodies in his left elbow; by his own account, this may have started as early as the Rays’ mid-April series in Chicago. The intangible of having a familiar catcher to start the season in Mike Zunino could also benefit the left hander. This will not be taken for granted in Tampa Bay, considering it’s a luxury compared to the revolving door of backstops they’ve seen in recent years.

The Verdict

I expect the 2020 version of Snell to look more like what we saw in 2019 than 2018. But wait, that’s not a bad thing. He raised his strikeout rate, improved his hard hit rate, and he spiked opponent chase rate by 5%, up to 35.9. One thing he might want to change is to get back to using his slider more like he did in 2018: something pitching coach Kyle Snyder had been encouraging in the second half of last season. An extra advantage for Snell this year is that more fly balls and line drives should be converted into outs now that Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot will be behind him.

How the baseball acts in future seasons is uncontrollable and unpredictable. It helps that Snell strikes out a third of all batters, so he’s not as subject to the fate of the ball as he could be. When he can pitch fully healthy with no health-related restrictions, like in his Cy Young season or in last year’s ALDS, he’s nearly unstoppable.

As Tampa Bay’s presumptive ace of the future, the Rays know that Blake Snell is someone they can count on to showcase his elite talent every fifth day. He already won the Players League; next on the list is the 2020 World Series.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick