The Houston Astros are scary. They came into a June 19 game against Tampa Bay on a 12-game winning streak during which they’d averaged more than seven runs per game. On the mound, in front of 37,414 fans, was Houston’s ace, Justin Verlander, who’s been the best pitcher in the American League this year. Even if he hadn’t been, the 35-year-old former MVP is still a living legend, still Justin fucking Verlander.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash didn’t have much ammo to respond with. Cash has been forced to manage creatively after ownership handed him the cheapest 25-man roster in the game, and despite his efforts, Cash’s lineup is 12th in the AL in runs scored. Following a spate of injuries—most notably to no. 1 starter Chris Archer—Cash hasn’t had the luxury of taking outs for granted, either. After using seven pitchers in a 5-4 loss the previous night, Cash sent 25-year-old left-hander Blake Snell to the mound.
Snell isn’t scary-looking.
He is roughly the same age as Bryce Harper, but compared to the thick-necked, hirsute, and muscular Nationals outfielder, Snell looks like a child. He’s 6-foot-4 with long limbs—big in the way that makes you imagine a mother complaining about grocery bills for her growing teenager. Snell’s hat is never on straight, and he wears no. 4 because it was his favorite number in Little League. He talks at a meandering andante, swallowing consonants as he speaks, and his official team photo resembles what Jay Baruchel’s mugshot might’ve looked like if he’d been caught shoplifting candy from a Blockbuster circa 2001.
Snell and the Rays got the better of the Astros that night, 2-1, a result that would be surprising if you judged Snell solely by his appearance. But Snell, in fact, has been the only constant in Tampa Bay’s rotation, the team’s best player by far, and one of the best pitchers in baseball. The Rays entered this season without enough starting pitchers, and through injury and ineffectiveness, their rotation has been culled further. Snell has made it his goal to pick up as much of the slack as he can, not just for his team’s sake, but for his own.
“One, you’re going to help the bullpen out,” Snell says. “Two, you allow yourself to feel things—I haven’t really felt the eighth and ninth innings. Those are things I want to experience, and I know the only way to experience them is by being consistent in the zone and getting in the zone. Only three or four pitches an at-bat. And to do that, you have to be consistent, and that’s something that I’m chasing. I see the guys at the top of the league—they get to 7-8-9 and they do it consistently. It’ll also let me get to 200 innings, which I really want to do. I think that’s a special number.”
Snell has always had good stuff, prompting the Rays to draft him 52nd overall out of Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington, in 2011. Like many highly touted high school pitchers, he had great potential but developed slowly. Snell slipped in and out of the Rays’ top 10 prospects list on Baseball Prospectus throughout his minor league career before popping up to no. 1 before the 2016 season, at which point he was a consensus top-25 prospect in all of baseball: no. 21 in BP’s rankings, no. 14 on MLB.com, and no. 12 according to Baseball America. He missed his fair share of bats during his amateur and minor league career, but a top-end big league starter needs more than just to flash good stuff.
In 2016, Snell posted a 113 ERA+ in 19 starts as a rookie, but threw only 89 innings thanks in part to a 12.7 percent walk rate, the second-highest in baseball among the 165 pitchers who threw 80 or more innings that year. In 2017, Snell walked 25 batters in his first eight starts, a 42-inning stretch in which he allowed a 4.71 ERA and a .362 opponent OBP, and earned a trip back to the minors.
Upon his return to the big leagues, Snell moved from the far right side of the rubber to the middle and started locating the ball better—from July on, he pitched 82 1/3 innings in 15 starts, cut his walk rate almost in half, and slashed his ERA by a run and a half. This year, Snell’s stuff has improved markedly, and he’s pitching as well as ever. By Baseball-Reference WAR, Snell is the ninth-best pitcher in MLB and the third-best left-hander, behind Chris Sale and Colorado’s Kyle Freeland. Baseball Prospectus ranks Snell 12th overall and third among lefties, behind Sale and Seattle’s James Paxton. Lefties are hitting .120/.180/.193 against Snell, the lowest marks in the American League in all three categories.
“I have a lot of weapons to use against [lefties],” Snell says. “The velo helps. My secondary pitches help. I don’t really know what it is that’s allowing that, but I feel very comfortable against lefties. Those at-bats end quickly. I’m very aggressive in the zone—it’s 1-2-3 and I’m moving on.”
Sometimes, one mechanical or tactical tweak can change the course of a pitcher’s career. Yet Snell says his hot finish to 2017 and hot start to 2018 are part of an ongoing process, not the result of one silver bullet. “I would say everything got more consistent moving to the left,” he says. “The reason my stuff got better was probably just the way I approached the offseason. I stayed consistent with my running and working out—that’s what I’d attribute my velo staying up a couple ticks to.”
Snell is a big fan of the word “consistent” and its derivatives. It’s both the refrain in his explanation of how he does what he does and the thing he needs to master to become the pitcher he wants to be. The stuff he’s got covered—as devastating as it was in high school, it’s now among the best in all of baseball.
For starters, Snell is throwing his fastball at an average of 96.3 miles per hour, edging Paxton by a hair for the hardest among left-handed starters, for an improvement of 1.6 miles per hour over his average fastball last year. He’s also added close to 2 miles per hour to each of his three secondary pitches: a hard-sinking change-up, a biting slider, and a gorgeous off-the-table curveball. Here’s one example, which left no less a hitter than Carlos Correa in knots.
“Correa has not had great swings against Snell,” Astros play-by-play man Todd Kalas said after that pitch, with the deadpan understatement of a man who’s dropped a full tray of food on the cafeteria floor.
Whether due to superior conditioning, his new positioning on the rubber, or some other reason, Snell is getting each of those three secondary pitches to break about an inch more horizontally and two inches more vertically, compared to last year’s numbers on Brooks Baseball. Having developed not just an extra dash of velocity but also a true four-pitch mix, Snell feels prepared for any situation, as he’s able to pitch unpredictably.
“It’s not like I’m fastball-slider and [batters] can go 50-50 and sit on one,” he says. “It’s weird, it’s just what I feel is best suited for that at-bat. That’s huge—they don’t really know what’s coming. They can try to guess, but they’ve got a 25 percent chance of guessing it. It’s all on what I feel they have a lesser chance of hitting or putting in play, or if I think they’re going to put it in play, [it’ll go] where I want them to put it.”
For example, Snell has thrown 423 fastballs to right-handed batters this year, not counting pitches that have ended a plate appearance. Snell has followed those up with 107 change-ups, 100 curveballs, 39 sliders, and 177 fastballs. Even if a hitter sits on another fastball, the most common follow-up pitch, he’s got a nearly 60 percent chance of guessing wrong—and almost falling over swinging and missing.
In his win over the Astros, Snell held Houston to one run and three hits, walking seven and striking out six. He was able to get through seven innings on 102 pitches; Verlander, who walked only one batter, needed 122 pitches to get through 6 2/3. Snell’s start marked the first time in 14 years, and the third time since 2000, that a starting pitcher has walked at least seven but pitched seven innings or more on 102 pitches or fewer.
After Snell put up those numbers, particularly in a road win over Verlander, it would be easy to anoint him as baseball’s newest true ace. But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the young left-hander, and the way Snell struggled in Houston—and managed to work around those struggles—are related to the next step in his evolution as a pitcher.
Ever since baseball teams have been allowed to substitute within games, it’s been to a team’s benefit for its best pitcher to pitch as high a percentage of its innings as possible, both in terms of going deep into games and making every scheduled start. Consider the 2016 NL Cy Young race: Clayton Kershaw posted a 237 ERA+, which is something only six qualified starters have done since 1900—and none since 2000. His K/BB ratio, 15.64, would have demolished the MLB single-season record if he’d logged enough innings to qualify. But Kershaw made just 21 starts and threw just 149 innings, finishing fifth in Cy Young voting. Max Scherzer’s ERA was nearly double Kershaw’s, yet he piled up 228 1/3 innings and walked away with the trophy.
Snell understands that the difference between good pitchers and great pitchers is the ability to not just pitch well, but pitch a lot. He talks about becoming that kind of pitcher with endearing earnestness. “Right now, what I’ve been working on is getting quicker outs, to allow me to pitch as many innings as I possibly can,” Snell says. “I’m more looking at what [hitters] can put in play softly. … I feel like that’d make me a next-level pitcher, instead of just a six- or seven-inning guy. That’s what I’m reaching for. I know I’ve got a lot to learn and build on, especially from Wilson. He’s one of the best in the league behind the plate.”
“Wilson” is 30-year-old catcher Wilson Ramos, a nine-year veteran in his second season with the Rays. At 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, Ramos is sometimes called “Buffalo,” and he’s as broad and blocky as Snell is tall and gangly. Snell, like many pitchers nowadays, works up in the zone with his fastball and down in the dirt with his secondary pitches, and you can see the effort it takes for Ramos, who’s had two knee reconstruction surgeries, to get in front of Snell’s hellacious curveballs. Ramos, like any veteran catcher with a young pitching staff, has taken to his role as a mentor.
“We have a pretty good relationship,” Ramos says. “I know he’s a young pitcher. He comes to me every single time, trying to talk, trying to learn. I’m always helping to teach him, but he’s been learning really well. He’s been pitching well, attacking hitters really well.”
When talking about Snell, Ramos says “concentrate” as much as Snell says “consistent.” Just as Snell says his improved conditioning has helped his performance this year, Ramos points to Snell’s focus and ability to take what he learns in practice and apply it in games. “He’s always working hard. When you have a bullpen session, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing: throw the slider into the ground, throw the curveball for strikes, try to elevate the fastball. But you have to practice that in the bullpen, and when you go into the game, it’ll be easier for you. He’s been doing that and he’s got good results.”
Snell has made it through six innings 26 times in 60 career starts, and of those 26, 12 have come in 17 starts this year. Twenty of those 26 have come since last year’s All-Star break. Snell mentioned Scherzer, who’s not only a two-time defending Cy Young winner but also MLB’s leader in innings pitched from 2015 to 2017, as one of his on-field role models. On June 5, Snell watched from the dugout as Scherzer needed just 99 pitches to strike out 13 Rays over eight innings, and said that’s the kind of efficiency to which he aspires.
Ramos, who caught Scherzer for two years in Washington, is in as good a position as anyone to comment on the comparison.
“That guy’s from another planet,” Ramos says of Scherzer. “Like I’m trying to teach my guys here: Concentrate on [what you’re doing] today. Work hard. He’d concentrate on his bullpen session every single time. In the game, he’d concentrate on the nine hitters in the lineup. He’d talk to me about how he wants to throw to every hitter—every pitcher needs to have a plan.”
Six days after he outdueled Verlander in Houston, Snell took the mound against the Nationals. Not only did he pitch into the game’s final innings; he didn’t allow a hit until Anthony Rendon doubled to lead off the seventh. Snell finished with 10 strikeouts in seven innings, allowing one hit and four walks. He threw only 103 pitches, and Washington batters swung and missed at 23 of them, the second-most whiffs in a game during Snell’s career. Tampa Bay won 11-0 and used just one relief pitcher. Scherzer watched from the opposing dugout.