Blake Snell is an anomaly. Despite his 2nd career Cy Young award in 2023, Snell’s free agent suitors have been quiet (so far) this offseason.
Overall, it makes sense. Snell is 31, seeking a $200 million+ deal, and showed typical warning signs for regression in 2023, such as a high BB%, LOB%, and a mediocre 3.72 xERA when compared to his 2.25 ERA.
This year’s market for FA pitchers has been bizarre as well. We’ve seen costly deals for players looking to rebound after a rough 2023 (Lucas Giolito, Frankie Montas) and somewhat inexpensive deals for more established starters (Marcus Stroman, Eduardo Rodriguez). With Snell’s slightly inconsistent track record, it’s difficult to project what deal he will get.
Snell reportedly turned down the Yankees’ 5-year, $150 million deal, with the Yankees then pivoting to Marcus Stroman at a more affordable 2-year, $37 million deal.
This raises the question of why a team would take a risk on a pitcher with as many warning signs as Snell, and if Snell is even worth the $30 million AAV he seeks. However, Snell’s weaker numbers may not tell the whole story of what to expect in his future.
Understanding Control vs. Command
Before going into Snell’s worrying walk rates or unsustainable LOB%, it should be understood that there are differences between a pitcher’s control and their command.
A pitcher’s “control” refers to their ability to throw pitches within the strike zone, which increases their Zone% and, likewise, decreases their BB%. A pitcher’s “command” is their ability to consistently place their pitches in a precise location, which is typically on the corners of the strike zone.
Command is much more difficult to quantify than control, as pitch concentrations aren’t always inside of the strike zone. Typically, looking at their “heatmaps” can show how concentrated their locations are, and a larger spread of pitch locations would indicate less command.
George Kirby is the perfect example of control and command. Take a look at his pitch heatmaps:
Kirby’s control/command of his most thrown pitches is incredible. His four-seamer, as well as his breaking pitches, are mostly placed within the strike zone, indicating his impressive control. In addition to this, their high concentration in specific places in the zone, such as his four-seamers at the top of the zone and sliders/curveballs low and away from right-handed batters, indicate his equally impressive command.
This led to Kirby posting an unreal 2.5 BB% and 52.4 Zone%, both best in the league among pitchers with at least 100 IP.
Rarely do pitchers show such impressive control and command. Some can do one or the other, and some struggle with both.
Take a player like Edward Cabrera. After 99.2 innings in 2023, Cabrera had a 15.2 BB% and 38.0 Zone%, both 2nd worst among pitchers with as many IP as him. This would lead one to believe Cabrera has some serious control/command issues, which would be correct.
Aside from his changeup, which he threw most often, Cabrera’s pitch concentrations were all over the place, with his breaking pitches most inconsistent. In addition, his concentrations with those breaking pitches were spread out widely within the strike zone, suggesting lesser command of those pitches.
Cabrera still had solid numbers on the season, with a 4.24 ERA despite a 1.45 WHIP. While Cabrera’s swing-and-miss numbers were great, his command of breaking pitches outside of the middle of the zone would need to improve for the ERA to get better as well. This is exactly what Blake Snell does.
In 2023, Snell had a 13.3 BB% and 36.6 Zone%, both of which are similar to Cabrera. However, Snell was significantly more effective, with a 2.25 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and finishing with the Cy Young award.
While Snell’s pitches aren’t very concentrated, a commonality between his breaking balls makes them so effective; they are primarily out of the strike zone. Even though his fastball is widely spread out, it being mostly in the zone allows for his curveball and slider to start in the zone and finish below it, making both more effective whenever thrown.
In addition to his breaking pitches, Snell’s changeup has generated great numbers when located well, despite its poor movement.
All of this led to Snell posting an elite 37.3 Whiff%, 31.5 CSW%, and 31.5 K%, while also greatly limiting extra-base hits. Snell’s consistent placement below the zone led to career-high GB% for both his four-seamer and curveball, as well as a career-best 0.75 HR/9, with batters only posting a .286 SLG against him.
However, Snell’s extremely high BB% led to many batters reaching base, and his very high LOB% indicates he got lucky when these batters failed to score.
With no runners on, Snell’s OBP allowed was at .305 with a .617 OPS, and with RISP, it dropped to .251 with a measly .470 OPS.
This indicates that, while Snell’s control was not great, his command was much better than most people realize. When runners reached base, Snell targeted the zone more frequently, which came with better overall results. Even if Snell were to continue walking batters as frequently as he does, as long as his aggressiveness with RISP is sustained, his results can be as well, to an extent.
While Snell’s Cy Young campaign may not be consistently repeatable, Snell’s approach can be. By preventing XBHs, attacking the zone with runners on, and dominating throughout the season, Snell showed how he can achieve success despite his high walk numbers.
However, this approach still has its consequences.
The Value of Innings Pitched
A pitcher’s ability to simply get outs is valuable to a team. In 2023, despite his 6.28 ERA, Jordan Lyles went out and pitched every 5 days for the Royals, totaling 177.2 innings. Lance Lynn allowed an insane 44 homers with a 5.73 ERA and threw valuable innings for the Dodgers down the stretch after a trade from the White Sox, totaling 183.2 innings on the year. Simply put, pitchers that throw lots of innings are valuable.
Snell is the opposite of Lyles/Lynn. In 2023, his 2.25 ERA was the best in the league, and yet he only threw 180 innings. Snell’s high walk numbers led him to throw many pitches per inning, preventing him from going deep into games.
Snell’s longest-pitched game was only 7 innings, which he accomplished only 3 times. Snell averaged 17.6 pitches/inning, and only 5.6 innings/start.
Within these innings, Snell dominated, but his lack of volume severely impacts his ceiling on what kind of FA deal he will garner.
Will it Happen Again?
Even with Snell’s approach in 2023, this kind of success is very difficult to repeat. Whichever team Snell signs with will have to work with him to sustain this approach, and maybe even sign his personal catcher from 2023, Gary Sánchez.
Pitching to Sanchez, Snell had a 1.29 ERA in 100.2 innings, allowing only 6 home runs over this stretch. While pitcher/catcher success is quite difficult to project for the future, the familiarity between the two could provide confidence wherever he signs, if they were to pick up Sanchez as well.
When evaluating Snell, it should also be considered that starting pitching is changing as a whole. With injuries as common as they are, the league average SP’s volume will likely decrease in the future. Until then, however, it could be smarter for Snell to take a short-term deal, and re-assess alongside the rest of the league when pitchers like Snell become more common.
Until then, it’s understandable to be cautious about committing to Snell. I certainly wouldn’t go for Snell’s sought-after deals, reportedly anywhere from 7 years, $200 million to even 9 years, $270 million.
Even with this known, however, I believe whichever team signs him will be happy with his production. Pitchers with the seasons Snell has had do not come around often, and at the end of his career, I think there’s a chance we look back on Snell’s career as an underrated ace with hall-of-fame potential.