Jim Henneman: Can Blake Snell Shed ‘Poster Boy’ Image In San Diego?

The bottom line on Blake Snell’s tenure in Tampa Bay is hardly a surprise. Just about every “informed source” in baseball, of which there are thousands, knew it the minute the two sides agreed to a five-year, $50 million contract ahead of the 2019 season.

Snell had a better chance of pitching a complete game for the Rays than he did of finishing that contract in Tampa Bay. For the record, Snell has never pitched into the ninth inning, let alone completed a game.

Even he had to see the handwriting on the wall, because that’s how the Rays roll. Build a foundation, auction to the highest bidder. Repeat the process. Stability is not part of the DNA.

It’s how the lower half lives in Major League Baseball these days. The sad news is more teams are now operating that way. It has nothing to do with on-field strategy, but make no mistake it is part of the analytical wave that is the rage today. Not just in baseball, but every other sport and even in everyday life. It’s just not as prevalent as it is in baseball, both on and off the field.

But we digress, back to the subject at hand. During his short stay in Tampa Bay, Snell did five things. In order, here they are:

  1. Established himself as a premier prospect.
  2. Won a Cy Young Award.
  3. Signed a five-year, $50 million contract.
  4. Pitched in a World Series.
  5. Became the poster boy for the era of five-inning starting pitchers.

For their part, the Rays did everything they could to take care of that final step. Beyond most logical reasoning (see Game 6, 2020 World Series), the Rays did everything possible to protect their future investment, to limit injury risk with their hoped-for franchise player by limiting his workload in every conceivable way.

The next step would be finding a trading partner willing to mortgage the farm by ponying up the most prospects in an attempt to win the lottery. Enter the San Diego Padres, suddenly in an all-in, win-now mode to overtake the Los Angeles Dodgers in the battle for Southern California (and National League) supremacy.

Snell went from being the primary building block to a premium trade chip in exchange for a four-player package. The centerpiece is said to be right-hander Luis Patino, and if he’s as advertised he can look forward to the same kind of team-friendly, backloaded deal as Snell, who left the Rays with $39 million due from 2021-2023.

Despite switching leagues, going from Tampa Bay to San Diego should be a smooth move for Snell. He’ll be going from one contender to another and won’t have to spend any of that money on a major wardrobe change (although summer nights can get a little chilly near the Mexican border).

What he will be bringing to the Padres besides a strong left arm, is the reputation, unwittingly or not, as a potential “six inning, 18 outs, 19 batters or whichever comes first” starter who hasn’t pitched more than seven innings in more than two years — and has lasted that long only three times during his five-year career.

Those sound like damning numbers, even for a former (2018) Cy Young Award winner, and they aren’t fictitious, something calculated in the analytics department. In his career, Snell has made 108 starts, pitched 556 innings and faced 2,292 batters.

That averages out to 15.4 outs and 21.2 batters faced per game, barely more than five innings per start under normal, and efficient, conditions. All of which would seem to justify the Rays’ philosophy that two times through the lineup is where the line is drawn and the call is made to the bullpen.

Which is exactly what happened in that notorious Game 6 of the World Series, when Snell was not allowed to face a 19th batter of the game despite having allowed only two hits and no runs while striking out nine and protecting a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. Manager Kevin Cash manned up and took one for the team while accepting full responsibility, but the move was nothing more than sticking with the predetermined limitations established by the Rays’ hierarchy. It was as though trade negotiations were already underway.

In order to fully comprehend this “two and you’re through” philosophy baseball has seemingly adopted (the Rays aren’t the only one, just the most blatant) for starting pitchers, you have to remember a few things. First of all, for a pitcher to reach the seventh inning before facing a lineup the third time, he has to be perfect for six innings.

Think about that one for a mini-second — he has to be perfect for 18 outs to get through six innings. And, of course, it takes 27 outs, three complete trips times through the lineup, to pitch a perfect game. Perfection, it seems, is not so much as required as it is demanded — otherwise it’s “two and you’re through.”

I have no doubt the Rays have numbers that show a decline for Snell the third time through the lineup. I’m sure they are accurate. But they are also incomplete — and there are some other numbers that simply don’t fit into the equation. And in many ways they are even more damning than the ones Snell takes with him to San Diego, where hopefully he’ll get a unique experience — like pitching in the eighth inning.

While the Rays have their own statistical proof, there are other numbers that should be considered when appraising Snell — and I would suggest many others who are cast under the same spell of suspicion. He has faced 27 batters, equivalent of three times through the lineup, only 13 times in his career. There is at least some evidence supporting the theory that number should be higher, and his earned run average would be lower, if he got to stick around a little longer.

Remember the 108 starts we mentioned at the top? Well, the Rays had a 59-49 record in those games. Snell’s personal record was 42-30, a winning percentage of .555. In the games where he had no decision, where maybe the hook arrived too early, the Rays were 17-19, a .472 pace. This may be exhibit A why we shouldn’t dismiss the value of a win, as Snell’s case should prove.

Not conclusive you say? Here’s another level — in those 108 starts, Snell allowed no earned runs 27 times. That would be a zero — as in none. Not only that, he allowed only one earned run 40 times and two earned runs 21 times. That’s 88 times, better than 81 percent of those 108 starts, in which he allowed two runs or fewer. That leaves 20 games (17 percent) in which he allowed three or more.

We won’t even go into detail about how many of those runs scored and were charged to Snell after he left the premises — as happened in World Series Game 6. I don’t know about you, but for me there’s enough evidence there to suggest maybe Blake Snell, and others under the same restrictions, shouldn’t be limited to two trips through the lineup as a matter of routine.

We know analytical numbers tell us what has happened in the past is likely to happen again. But they also say every situation is the same, that the unknown can’t be trusted, so don’t buck the odds — just go with the numbers because they don’t lie. In other words, take the human element out of the equation — and the game.

Sounds kind of boring, which seems to be a major concern around MLB these days. But that’s a subject for another day.

Maybe Blake Snell can shed his Poster Boy image in San Diego — or at least get the opportunity to do so. Maybe the Padres will adopt a unique approach and just “Let The Kids Pitch.”

We’re allowed to dream, right?

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays