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Should We Buy Back Into Blake Snell?

Early in 2018, I was hosting a daily fantasy radio show at a former job and we just started to jump back into fantasy baseball. It was early in February (around this same time of year) and we were talking about some of our early targets heading into that season. One name I mentioned was Blake Snell. At that point, Snell looked like a failed prospect who had command issues that no one knew if he would overcome. The year before, Snell was sent down to the minors for an extended period of time to fix these issues. But, while prepping for that upcoming season and that show, I kept noticing that Snell pitched very well after getting recalled in 2017, but no one was taking notice.

Not all of my co-hosts were on board and debated strongly against Snell. After that show, I couldn’t wait to continue deep-diving into Snell, as I believed I had uncovered a lesser-known breakout pitcher. That night on the subway (that’s right, I didn’t even wait to get home) I was looking at heat maps on a crowded subway in midtown Manhattan. But the deeper I went down the Snell rabbit hole, the more I liked what I saw. I wrote an article about Snell and banged the drum for readers to take a chance on Snell that season in their fantasy drafts. So much so that some dubbed me, Mr. Blake Snell that season. Snell went on to vastly outlive any projection I could have imagined and made me look far smarter than I am (but let's keep that between us). He went on to win me and many others fantasy championships that season. As one last little gift to me, my article went on to win the 2018 FSWA baseball article of the year

This all may sound like the biggest humble brag in history, but there is good reason. When I joined RotoBaller this winter, I was presented with the idea of following up on that article and doing an article looking on Snell’s outlook heading into 2020 coming off of an injury-riddled 2019 season. I loved the idea and just wanted to give you the backstory of why I am writing about whether or not you should jump back on board with Snell this season. I want to paint the full picture of Snell’s 2019 season and what went both right and wrong for the Cy Young winner. But, unlike the Rock in the Fast and the Furious, I want to start with the veggies (bad news) first. 

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What Went Wrong in 2019

Snell started off 2019 without missing a beat from his 2018 season. He pitched to a 2.16 ERA in his first four starts while striking out nearly 13 batters per nine. He had gone at least six innings in each and struck out at least nine in three of those. Things looked to be going great for those who bought the ace at a much higher cost than the year prior, but then injuries kicked in. And not just any injury, but the worst kind… a freak injury.

On April 16th, Snell dropped a granite piece of furniture on his foot, all while being fresh out the shower. It cost him a little over a week and a half of action. He landed on the IL again in July due to loose bodies in his left elbow. He did not return until mid-September, but failed to go more than four innings in any outing, postseason included. But, the injuries didn’t start last year. In July 2018, Snell was placed on IR due to left shoulder fatigue. That is an important date for Snell because that is when the Rays' treatment of him began to change. 

Blake Snell in 2018, up until shoulder injury:

  • 20 starts, 119 IP, 5.95 IP per start, 98.15 pitches per start
  • 2.27 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, .243 BABIP, 86.3% strand rate, 3.43 FIP, 3.59 xFIP

Blake Snell since returning from shoulder injury on August 8th, 2018:

  • 34 starts, 168.2 IP, 4.95 IP per start, 83.71 pitches per start
  • 3.15 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, .308 BABIP, 77.1% strand rate, 2.84 FIP, 2.95 xFIP

The top line of each is what I want you to focus on for now. Since getting injured on July 2018, the Rays have been treating Snell with kid gloves. His innings pitched per start dropped by a full inning. His average pitches thrown per start dropped by nearly 15. He’s gone more than six innings in five of those 34 starts (15 percent). He went seven innings just once in 2019 and it was his second start of the season, before either of the injuries. Can Snell go 200 innings this season? The belief is yes, he can, and it is shown in his ADP (34th overall, 10th SP off the board). But, that is only part of the equation as the other side is: will the Rays allow him to go 200 innings? His durability is the biggest question mark heading into the 2020 season. 

While that is the biggest concern, it is not the only one. There was a slight velocity drop, depending on the site you use. Using Fangraphs for the dates listed above, Snell’s velocity was on par or actually up very slightly (less than 1 MPH) on all his pitches since the first injury in July 2018 - except the changeup, which they have at a 1.3 MPH decrease. However, Brooks Baseball paints a different picture. They have all of Snell’s pitches as 0.2 to 1 MPH slower, except the changeup, which also has a 1.3 MPH decrease. This does not concern me nearly as much as the injuries though. Snell was still elite in 2019, evident by his Statcast results:

There is one more minor concern with Snell, but it is something I noticed when deep diving into him and want to share. I broke Snell’s 2019 campaign into three parts and discovered an unnerving trend: he allowed more line drives as the season went on. In the first four starts (prior to the foot injury) he had allowed line drives just 16.3 percent of the time. To put that into perspective, league average for starters in 2019 was 21.6 percent. That number climbed to 26.3 percent from April 24th to July 21st. Those dates are when he returned from the foot issue and up until the elbow injury. He returned from that injury in mid-September and had a 33.3 percent line-drive rate in those final three outings.

Why is that particularly worrisome? Well, line drives often result in hits. The league average BABIP on line drives last year was .678. For Snell, that number would have been an improvement. He allowed a career-high .758 BABIP on line drives in 2019. His BABIP allowed on grounders was .296 and on fly balls was a mere .077. Any pitcher is going to have worse results on line drives, but it is the increasing amount that he allowed that would be the red flag. 


What Went Right in 2019

Outside of the injuries, there was a lot that went right for Snell in 2019. He was already one of the best strikeout pitchers out there, but somehow managed to improve last year. His strikeout rate jumped from 31.6 percent in 2018 to 33.3 percent in 2019. The walk rate remained the same (9.1 percent) meaning that his K-BB% jumped to a career-high, 24.3 percent. That would have tied with Lucas Giolito for the sixth-highest mark in the MLB, had he qualified. He also posted both a career-high 37 percent chase rate and 17.7 percent swinging-strike rate last season. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that he induced batters to swing at a career-high 48.9 percent of pitches, but allowed contact to be made a career-low 63.7 percent of the time. That’s right. Despite the fact that batters were swinging at his pitches more often than ever, he allowed less contact than in any of his previous seasons. 

Snell also improved when batters actually made contact. He limited hard contact better last year than his Cy Young campaign. His hard-hit rate was 34.8 percent last year, it was 35.7 percent in 2018. The last thing a pitcher wants to allow is a barreled ball. Those almost always leave the yard and if not, still cause trouble. His Brls/PA% dropped from 7.2 percent in 2018 to 4.7 percent in 2019. His average exit velocity was 88 MPH, up exactly one MPH from the year before. But, many of the expected numbers were either on par with 2018 or improved.

For instance, his expected batting average was .203 last year, compared to .205 in 2018. His expected wOBA (xwOBA) was .264 last year, while it was .273 in 2018. Lastly, his expected wOBA on balls in play (xwOBAcon) dropped from .273 in 2018 to .264 last year. I know I just threw a lot of numbers at you, but what they all mean is that Snell was very similar last year to the pitcher he was the year prior, just with worse luck. That is the most logical reason why the surface results were not nearly as good.


To Snell or Not to Snell?

There are certainly concerns with Snell - but that has much more to do with his availability to take the mound, rather than his ability when he is on it. So what should you expect when he pitches in 2020? The truth lies somewhere in between his last two seasons. There were really three factors that led to Snell’s surface numbers not living up to the peripherals.

First, his BABIP ballooned to .343. That would have been the second-highest of all starting pitchers had he qualified. Only Jon Lester (.347) had a higher mark, and no one else was even close (the next closest qualified pitcher was Tanner Roark with a .322 BABIP). The league average BABIP for starting pitchers was .297. He also saw his strand rate drop to 71.6 percent, which was just below league average (71.9 percent), but very low for a dominant strikeout pitcher like Snell. And lastly, his HR/FB rate jumped to 15.4 percent. That was a tick below league average (15.5), but still it was nearly a five percent jump for Snell. The Cy Young award winner was due for some natural regression following a historically efficient 2018 season. But heading into 2020, you should be expecting positive regression to sink in.  

The true talent level lies somewhere in the middle of the last two, and that is what you should expect if you draft him. The BABIP will fall in between the .241 mark from 2018 and .343 from last season. The strand rate will not be 88 percent like in 2018 - but even if it is his career norm of 76.3, that is a big improvement on last year's 71.6 percent. While the HR/FB rate he had last year was league average, it is well below his career norm of 10.7 percent, which was the same number he put up in 2018. If that number can even meet in the middle there will be beneficial results. Positive regression sinking into those numbers should bring the ERA closer to that 3.31 xFIP from last season. In fact, ATC projects him to finish with a 3.34 ERA, right in that range.

While not in the top three of starting pitchers, Snell is squarely in the second tier and close to one of the elite arms in fantasy baseball. He deserves to be a top-10 pitcher off the board. He has some of the best swing-and-miss stuff in the league, but that has never been in question. We know he was unlucky when batters put the ball in play last year and that better results should be expected. He should provide strong results every time he takes the mound.

The only real concern is if he misses time this season and if the Rays continue to limit his innings on a per start basis. If they do try to limit him and he avoids a lengthy IL stint, he will certainly still return value. If he does suffer an injury, not only does that limit his overall innings, but it increases the chances the Rays try to limit his workload. That is the real risk with Snell. But the pitchers going around him are Stephen Strasburg and Chris Sale, who both have a near, if not, elite skill set but also come with some durability questions of their own. Snell fits right in with this group, and his ADP is an appropriate price to pay for him. And if it makes you feel any better, Snell has reported to camp earlier than ever in an attempt to improve his health this season. 

Snell has the ability to finish as a top-five pitcher in baseball, but due to the health concern, you do not need to pay that price. You are not getting a nice discount, but you are not paying for the ceiling either. Snell is a strong buy in the early third round, especially for a fantasy team that starts off by drafting two hitters. I will be buying Snell this year and have already drafted him on multiple teams, both as an SP1 and SP2. I advise you to do the same, just like two years ago.

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