Friday, December 15, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Talking-to by dad helps Rays' Snell reach potential

PORT CHARLOTTE — Blake Snell had been back to his Seattle area home for a week or two, feeling pretty good about himself after a 2014 season in which he finally reached advanced Class A during his fourth pro season and was named the Rays' top minor-league pitcher.

He headed out with his dad and older brother, Dru, to grab some food at Spiro's Pizza and Pasta, one of their favorite local spots in Shoreline.

But there was more than just dinner served that night.

Dave Snell, who had battled to the Double-A level during his own six-year pitching career, had kept quiet long enough. Seeing how much talent his lanky, left-handed son had, and sensing the possibility that it could be wasted because of how little Blake worked at it, Dave decided to speak up, and speak out, with a string of cliched stingers.

What it all comes down to is you've got to outwork the guys that are in front of you. … A lot of guys are trying to all get to the same spot and only a certain number can make it. … Just because you're a first-round pick don't make you special. … You're a little fish in a big pond and you've got to swim to the top. … If you take a day off, people are going to pass you by.

"We just laid it out," Dave recalled last week. "The reality: Just told him how it is. And since that day I've never had to get on him again."

That table talk is now considered a seminal moment in Snell's development.

Snell quickly transformed into one of the game's top prospects with a dazzling 2015 performance that started with a 46-inning scoreless streak, took him through three levels up to Triple A with a 15-4 record and 1.41 ERA and ended with a pair of minor-league player of the year awards.

And that has him set to emerge at some point this season, perhaps sooner than later, as the next great arm from the Rays' pitching factory, accompanied by a quirky lefty backstory that includes a collection of 225-plus pairs of name-brand sneakers, a habit of talking to himself aloud on the mound and a best friend called Junior who happens to be his dog.

"It's just a wow thing," longtime pitching coordinator Dick Bosman said. "There's so much to like there — the size, the arm, the stuff. And the other intangibles that we know are the ingredients for the good ones, they're all there, too."

• • •

Certainly Snell, 23, deserves credit for making the adjustments to his routine, learning to work harder, eat healthier, take better care of himself, prepare more seriously for his starts. As do the Rays' minor-league coaches, such as Bosman, Kyle Snyder and R.C. Lichtenstein, who worked with him through failures and frustrations.

But as dazzling as his upper 90s fastball and changeup have been, as obvious as the potential for the curveball and slider was, as projectable as his body seemed after being part of the Rays' 2011 draft haul (taken 52nd overall as compensation for the loss of Brad Hawpe), it took that talking-to from his dad to make a difference.

"Blake Snell's development is interesting from a standpoint that he had great skill but not great work ethic," farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "He was okay with the work ethic but not to where we needed him to be.

"Sometimes you never know who can turn the light switch on. Somebody reached Blake, and he came into spring training like no other. From Day 1, it didn't stop until that last pitched ball."

Snell basically hadn't seen any reason to work any harder or take the game any more seriously, his talent enough to get him by. At least until Dave, who prefers to only offer advice when asked, made it clear how good he could be.

"It was a real heart-to-heart moment that really made me feel like I can be better and I could do all of this," Snell said. "Now every day I just say, 'What do I need to do today to become better?' … I'm just always trying to get better now. It's just who I've become. I just want to get better at everything I do."

• • •

In a way, he sounds almost too good.

"When you talk to him, if you don't know him, you think a lot of it's a put-on because he says all the right things. But he does all the right things,'' Bosman said. "He's truly the All-American boy."

Not only has Snell put career development first, but there isn't really a second.

"I'm just focusing on baseball right now," he said. "It's something I want to do for a long time, and I don't need any distractions."

No drinking, no smoking, no complicated romantic relationships, no more late-night video gaming or YouTube rap videos. He lives in the offseason with his mom, hangs out with close friends, goes on occasional hikes, visits with his dad (his parents are divorced) and three brothers and spends a lot of time at a nearby dog beach with Junior, his chocolate lab.

"There's nothing crazy that I do," Snell said. "I'm just a really boring guy."

But not without some interesting sidelights.

One is the sneaker collection.

What started as a teenaged affinity for Air Jordans has now taken over much of his bedroom and closet, with the inclusion of some Adidas Yeezys and other styles. "I don't know, it just kind of took off in the seventh grade," Snell explained. "I just fell in love with them. I would save my lunch money to buy shoes. I would sell shoes online for more than I paid to buy more."

Snell said he is trying to cut down on additions and give more away. But when it's pointed out that former Rays lefty David Price has a similar stash, Snell admitted, "I'm trying to catch up to him, but it's kind of hard when he's got an endorsement."

Another is the on-mound conversation.

"I feel like when I'm pitching, if I talk to myself in my head, I don't hear it," Snell said. "It's weird. So I kind of mumble it out so I know what I'm saying. It kind of keeps me going and pumps me up."

And there's more, such as the twin brother (Tyler) who he says couldn't look less like him, the dog being named after Ken Griffey Jr., the pledge he made to his grandmother before she died about making the majors, the 9 inches he grew between his sophomore and junior years of high school, his diehard devotion to Seattle pro and University of Washington sports teams, the inspirational quotes he posts on his @snellzilla11 Twitter account.

But most important for Snell is taking that last step to the majors. He has been working out feverishly to be ready for his first big-league camp that starts today, even little things such as throwing major-league balls, which have different seams than those used in the minors.

• • •

Snell, who was considered for a September callup, wants very badly to make the opening day roster, but that's unlikely.

First, the Rays have a full rotation. Also, they have two good reasons to start him in the minors — managing his innings, as he threw only 134 last year, so he will be available late in the season; and limiting his free agency eligibility, as keeping him down for at least 20 days saves them another year. (That could be a moot point if the long-term contract that has been discussed were to be consummated.)

Snell knows, however, there is only so much he can do.

"If they think I'm ready, I'll be up there," Snell said. "If not, I'm just going to keep getting better."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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