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2019 Season in Review - Blake Snell

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell had an excellent 2019 season for someone that was considered to be a bust. Sure, the 2018 AL Cy Young award winner didn't live up to his 28th overall average draft position, but he wasn't the one who said to draft him that high... Throw in some time missed with an elbow injury and Snell has become an afterthought in the discussion of elite American League starters.

Snell's stat line from this past season isn't pretty. He went 6-8 with a 4.29 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 147 strikeouts. None of those numbers scream "fantasy ace" which is what he was drafted to be. However, if we take a look under the hood, Snell's skill-based numbers were actually remarkably similar to his 2018 season, making him a potential steal on draft day 2020.

So why the discrepancy between his 2018 and 2019 numbers? A lot of it boils down to an elbow injury that caused him to miss about two months and also some good old-fashioned bad baseball luck.

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What Goes Up, Must Come Down

The elbow injury isn't something that can be predicted and should not affect him into next season. Snell underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow in late July. He recovered from that injury and make a few short appearances at the end of the season. He also started Game 3 of the ALDS vs Houston and threw 58 pitches the day before coming in for a two-out save in Game 4, so it's clear that fantasy managers don't need to worry about his elbow more than any typical starter.

The luck factor of his game, however, is where we can really see that his skill level is right where it's always been.

Before we proceed, let's make one thing clear. Snell is not as good as he was in 2018. He's also not as bad as he was in 2019. His skill-based metrics put him right in the middle of those two outlier seasons and are right up there with some of the best pitchers in the game. Among pitchers that threw at least 100 innings, Snell was 10th in the Majors with a 3.31 xFIP and 12th with a 3.56 SIERA. Both of those numbers are significantly better than his 4.29 ERA, which itself was inflated thanks to one start where he gave up six runs in a third of an inning. Toss out that one obvious clunker and his ERA is a much more respectable 3.79.

Throw in Snell's 3.32 FIP and all of the skill-based indicators suggest his ERA should have been much better than it was. In fact, Snell had the fifth-biggest gap between FIP and ERA suggesting he's due for positive regression moving forward. The regression seems even more obvious when you break down his batted ball data.


The Hard Facts

In 2018, Snell gave up 18.1 percent soft contact, 46.1 percent medium contact, and 35.7 percent hard contact.

In 2019, those numbers change to 18.6 percent hard contact, 46.6 percent medium contact, and 34.8 percent hard contact.

Sure, he gave up a few more line drives and pulled balls in 2019 than he did in 2018, but overall his batted ball profile is as consistent as you'll find in the bigs. The main differences in his two seasons come down to two key stats that are largely out of the pitcher's control: BABIP and HR/FB rate.

Snell was one of the unluckiest pitchers in baseball when it comes to batting average on balls in play (BABIP). His .343 BABIP against was the third-worst number in the Majors and over 100 points higher than the .241 figure batters hit against him in 2018. This caused his batting average against to shoot up from an elite .176 in 2018 all the way up to .240 in 2019. As we already examined, Snell's batted balls against were virtually the same as his Cy Young season so could things really be as simple as more balls falling in for hits?

That very well may be the case when we look at his home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB). Snell's HR/FB rate wasn't egregiously higher than league average this season, but it was almost five percent higher than his 2018 mark, a massive difference when talking about a one-season sample size.

More batters on base and more fly balls leaving the yard is generally not a recipe for pitching success. Add that on top of the fact Snell was a bit lucky in the BABIP and HR/FB rate departments in 2018 and you've got a third-round draft bust.

Based on what we've seen from Snell so far in his Major League career, expect him to bounce back in a big way in 2020. We've already seen his floor this past season, and even in a disappointing season, he put up 147 strikeouts in 107 innings. His 33.3 percent strikeout rate is among the best in the Majors. His 17.7 percent swinging-strike rate, one of the best predictive metrics for strikeout success, was by far the best in baseball. The strikeouts will be there for Snell and the rest of his numbers should bounce back in a big way. Pencil Snell in for ~12 wins to go along with a low-3.00 ERA and a ton of strikeouts.

This is an elite pitcher entering the prime of his career, coming off a down season. Treat Snell like a must-start fantasy ace that can be drafted a round or two behind what he cost this season.

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