CHICAGO — It's easy in many ways to see how much better Blake Snell has been doing for the Rays the past couple of weeks, from as simple of a read as the smile on his face to the advanced data detailing improvements in first-pitch strike percentage and deeper dives.
Since given a second chance at his second chance, when Alex Cobb's toe injury led the Rays to reverse Snell's Aug. 4 second demotion of the season, the 24-year-old left-hander has shown the ability to put his oft-talked-about ample talent to proper use.
Consider that over his past four starts, he has a 2-0 record and 2.39 ERA. A tiny .183 average and .570 OPS allowed. A ratio of 23 strikeouts to eight walks over 261/3 innings. And a slight uptick in strike percentage overall (60), and especially swinging (11).
When Snell starts tonight to face the White Sox, he will take the same revised approach that has served him so well to the mound.
"I think it's the confidence, the composure," Snell said. "I feel like I've been staying more composed on the mound. I know what I'm doing, I know why I'm doing it. There's a lot more purpose, a lot more meaning. Each pitch matters."
Ask around the Rays and you get a sense of some other things he is doing better, or at least differently.
Throwing more strikes early in the game
There is an immediate benefit in the potential for quick outs, and a residual one: that getting hitters focused on pitches, especially fastballs thrown with conviction, in the zone early makes it easier to expand later and lure them to swing at pitches off the plate. Veteran Evan Longoria (left) can see from his spot at third base how key that has been. "He's been aggressive in the zone early," Longoria said. "That's one of the things that has been preached the most to him, especially early on in the year, was, 'Listen, your stuff is really good, throw it in the zone, especially early in the game, and see what they can do with it.' … With the stuff he has, all he had to do in my mind was establish strikes early. That's it." Doing so puts hitters on the defensive, which also works to Snell's advantage. "I think that's the biggest difference, he's throwing strike one, and his misses are close," Longoria said. "His stuff is good enough to get anybody in this game out. So when he gets ahead and he's established the strike zone, now he's starting to get swing and misses on balls that are just short or just outside the zone."
Working harder between starts
Snell has become close with two-time All-Star Chris Archer (left), who at the start of 2016 spring training publicly called him out for not being early enough to the first workout. But they're buddies now on and off the field, and Archer's indefatigable between-starts work ethic and drive seem to have worn off, at least some. "I've gotten better with my workouts," Snell said. "From the start of the season to now I take them more seriously." Veteran starter Alex Cobb said the difference is obvious, "basically a 180 since the last time he got sent down (mid May) and called up (late June)."
Seeking more help
Snell acknowledges he has become more open to input from pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Stan Boroski, on topics big (such as moving across the rubber) and small. And he has been asking more and better questions of the other starters, such as on back foot alignment and balance points. As a result, Cobb said, Snell has a better understanding of why things are happening and, more importantly, how to adjust in game without disruption.
Learning to deal with adversity
Fold it in with other signs of maturity, but Snell has gotten better at not letting questionable calls or defensive misplays — or missed plays — get him off track.
"There was a reaction to a lot of things early on," manager Kevin Cash said. "His last couple starts, there hasn't been a reaction to anything. All he's focused on is the next pitch."
Pitching with more confidence
This is a little chicken-and-eggy, but whether the success bred the confidence or the belief made him better, Snell clearly has fed off the improved results.
"He just needed that one great start to get things going in the right direction," starter Jake Odorizzi (right) said. "It's the mental side of it. You have to work through it, and once you do it's like the sun comes out and you realize this is the recipe I can be successful with.
"And for him it's really nice to see because we've all been trying our best to help, and now that we're starting to see the results, it's like, 'Man, this is the guy who can be a huge difference-maker, and for years to come.' "
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.