The Tampa Bay Rays have made headlines with their unique pitching strategy this year. They’ve started many games with an “opener,” a relief pitcher who pitches one or two innings and is then replaced by a pitcher who can cover more innings. So far, it’s worked effectively for the Rays, but they’d prefer if they didn’t have to operate this way. They’d love to be like the Houston Astros and have five great starting pitchers they could just use as traditional starters.
That’s not the reality for Tampa Bay, though. Following an off-season that saw Alex Cobb depart via free agency and Jake Odorizzi traded, the Rays then lost top prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon for the season as they had to undergo Tommy John surgery in Spring Training. Another promising young pitcher, Anthony Banda, has also since had Tommy John. Nathan Eovaldi had to undergo an elbow procedure and missed the first two months. Meanwhile, Jake Faria‘s on the 60-day disabled list with an oblique strain he suffered on May 22nd, and Chris Archer is on the 10-day disabled list with a groin injury he suffered on June 2nd. Oh, and they also just lost Wilmer Font to a lat strain that could sideline him for two months.
With so many injuries, the Rays were more or less forced into their unorthodox pitching plan. It’s not just the success of their opener strategy that has helped the Rays survive all those injuries, though. It’s also been the emergence of one of the few pitchers they actually do still use as a traditional starter, Blake Snell.
Blake Snell Has Become an Ace for the Tampa Bay Rays
Snell’s always had potential. The left-hander was a first-round pick out of high school by Tampa Bay in 2011, and was named Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 2015. He debuted for the Rays in 2016, but much of his first two seasons in the big leagues were a struggle. In fact, Snell was twice optioned to Triple-A last season. He seemed to figure something out toward the end of the year, though, as he posted a 2.84 ERA over his final 10 starts. Whatever clicked for Snell in August last year, he’s carried it into this season and developed into one of the game’s best pitchers.
After being perhaps the most frustrating player on the Rays for much of last season, Snell’s been their most impressive player this year. His numbers this season are sparkling. Through 18 starts, he’s 11-4 with a 2.24 ERA, 3.44 FIP and 1.01 WHIP. He’s struck out 123 batters in 108.2 innings, good for a K/9 rate of 10.19. Snell ranks second in the American League in wins, third in ERA, and eighth in strikeouts and WHIP.
He’s always had great stuff. Snell boasts a mid-to-upper 90’s fastball, two breaking pitches and a change-up. It’s learning how to control that stuff that has allowed Snell to become so effective. Over those final 10 starts last season, Snell walked just 18 batters in 57 innings, an average of 2.84 per nine innings. Prior to that, Snell had walked 41 batters in 72.1 innings, a staggering 5.12 per nine.
So far this season, Snell has walked 41 batters in 108.2 innings. That rate has risen lately as he has actually had some trouble with walks recently. Snell recently had a three-start stretch where he walked at least four batters per game, including a seven-walk outing against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. However, even in that outing, Snell managed to pitch around the walks, giving up just one run on three hits over seven innings to earn the win.
Though he walked four in his next outing against the Washington Nationals, Snell also gave up just one hit and struck out 10 over seven shutout innings. Snell’s control was back in his most recent outing, though. Again facing the Astros, Snell issued just one walk, which didn’t come until the final batter he faced with one out in the eighth inning. He picked up another win, giving up just one run on four hits while racking up 10 strikeouts for the second straight start.
The occasional lapses in control are really the only thing that gives opposing lineups a chance against Snell. When they don’t take advantage of that, as the Astros and Nationals didn’t, opponents don’t have much hope, because Snell’s been so hard to hit. Batters are hitting just .178 off of Snell this season, the second-lowest mark of any American League pitcher, and he’s given up just 12 home runs in his 18 starts.
What Snell’s emergence means for the Rays
Consider all that’s gone wrong for the Rays. The injuries. Two eight-game losing streaks. A 4-13 start. An MLB-high 20 one-run losses. Spending much of the season with a three-man rotation or sometimes even a two-man rotation, as they are now with just Snell and Eovaldi. Yet somehow, after Snell’s most recent dazzling performance, they found themselves above .500 at 42-41.
Competing for a playoff spot this year still looks unlikely due to the top-heavy nature of the American League this season. Over the last few years, just being above .500 has often been enough to be in the race for the AL’s second wild card. The Minnesota Twins got it with just 85 wins last season, and the next closest teams were the Rays, Los Angeles Angels and Kansas City Royals, who all had 80 wins.
Right now, though, the Rays are 11 games behind the Seattle Mariners, who hold the second Wild Card at 54-31. Yes, the team holding the second Wild Card is on pace for 103 wins. The Mariners still find themselves a half game back of the Astros in the AL West, and the two top teams in the American League, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, reside in the AL East with the Rays.
Playoff race or not, though, the Rays are much more competitive, and much more fun, than most people expected them to be this year. They’re providing people with reasons to be optimistic about the future. One of the biggest reasons has been Snell’s emergence as one of the top pitchers in the game.
Wilson Ramos is leading the fan vote among catchers in the American League, but it’s clear he shouldn’t be the only Ray at the All-Star Game. There’s no doubt that Snell’s performance this season is worthy of an All-Star selection, which would represent a remarkable turnaround for the 25-year-old southpaw. On August 3rd, 2017, Snell lasted just four innings in a start against the Astros. After that game, he was sent down for the second time last season. Less than a year later, you’ll likely see Snell representing the Rays at the All-Star Game in Washington later this month.
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