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Rays’ Blake Snell: This is how a Star is born

Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell has rebounded from a demotion to the minors to being named to the American League staff for the All-Star Game. (Chris Urso/Times)
Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell has rebounded from a demotion to the minors to being named to the American League staff for the All-Star Game. (Chris Urso/Times)
Published Jul. 15, 2018|Updated Jul. 15, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — Blake Snell didn't know where he was headed at this time last year.

Having made a couple of unimpressive starts after rejoining the Rays following a six-week demotion to Triple A he earned with a brutal beginning to what was supposed to be his first full season in the majors, Snell was flying west to spend the break at home in Seattle.

But mentally, mechanically and in other ways, he was in dire need of direction.

Snell's itinerary for the next few days is much clearer:
Board a flight Sunday night for Washington, D.C., to enjoy the rewards of being selected — albeit as a roster replacement — to pitch for the American League team in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

"The appreciation for what he's gone through from last year to this year to now being named an All-Star is pretty impressive,'' Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

How did Snell make the turnaround?

How did he go from 0-6, 4.98 through the first two thirds of last season and 5-7, 4.04 overall, to 12-5, 2.27 this year?

Consider it an amalgamation of changes, mental, physical, strategic, plus some other factors:

But seriously

Snell is having more success at the game because he is taking it more like a job.

He made that commitment last offseason when he increased the intensity of every-other-day sessions at his Seattle-area gym, focusing specifically on core and drive leg strength to combat late-game fatigue, doing more working out and less hanging out.

He has maintained that drive during his four days out of five work with Rays strength and conditioning assistant Joey Greany, with whom he has connected well, and some friendly competition with teammate Chris Archer.

"I think he recognized that to some degree you have to suffer to grow,'' pitching coach Snyder said. "He applied himself more than he ever has from a strength and conditioning standpoint.''

Snell is also being more serious about his preparation, strategic adjustments and postgame analysis.

Both catchers, All-Star Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre, said Snell asks more questions and wants to talk about the opposing hitters than ever before. Cash noted that Snell has been more critical in his self-evaluation, that for the first time he will "nitpick himself even after good starts.'' Snell challenges himself during games to throw fewer pitches than the previous inning in hopes of getting deeper and immediately analyzes each start by watching the video on his iPad.

"It's just the fact that he wants to be as good as he possibly can,'' Snyder said.

Lining up

The pitching rubber is 2 feet wide, so any adjustment is measured in inches.

But for Snell, the shift last July from the third-base side to the first-base side of the middle was huge.

"I think that made a significant difference,'' Snyder said. "I would say that probably has as much if not more to do with where he is right now than anything.''

Organizationally, the Rays have preferred pitchers work from the side of the rubber of their glove hand to allow for maximum extension in throwing the fastball.

But there are exceptions.

Unimpressed with Snell's performance after his return from Triple-A Durham, former pitching coach Jim Hickey and holdover bullpen coach Stan Boroski felt he would benefit from moving over, creating what — with his delivery — would be a more direct alignment to the plate.

It took Snell a couple of starts to get comfortable. But no one thinks it's a coincidence that shortly thereafter he went on a 10-start run (5-1. 2.84) that provided hope and encouragement for this season. In the 30 starts overall since, he is 17-6, 2.45.

"Moving him to the center helped him stay in the narrow hallway,'' Snyder said. "And as soon as he's done that, golly, you could argue he's the best pitcher in the game since then."

Top-shelf stuff

Snell's physical tools have been promising since the Rays took him 52nd overall in their infamous 2011 draft, a lanky 6-foot-4 frame with lightning in his left arm. The addition and refinement of a confounding change­up, taunting curveball that is among the best around, and an occasionally biting slider give him a four-pitch repertoire, and the ability to rely on whichever of the secondary pitches is working best at the time, adjusting even batter to batter.

And he seems to be a little bit sharper with everything this year.

Snell's fastball has averaged 96.3 mph, up 1.6 from last year, sixth best in the majors and tops of all lefties. He is throwing the other three pitches about 2 mph harder each, plus with more break. And he's throwing more accurately, cutting down on walks while improving his efficiency.

How many other pitchers offer that broad a repertoire at that high quality?

"A handful, maybe,'' Snyder said. "Then with the handedness, and you start looking at pitch-movement information, a handful may be a stretch.''

Ya gotta believe

Snell made his major-league debut in an April 2016 cameo, then returned that June to make 18 more starts, going 6-8, 3.54 overall.

He made the opening-week rotation last season and, around the six-week demotion to Triple A (which he understood) and a second that was aborted before he left (which ticked him off), ended up taking the mound 24 times, posting that 5-7, 4.04 mark.

But the Rays don't think he really felt he made it as a major-leaguer until this season.

"I think the biggest key is he finally realized he belonged,'' Snyder said. "He ultimately realized going into the 2017 offseason he was dissatisfied where he was and what he had achieved at the point, and he came in with a goal, a clear goal.''

Archer referenced the five-stage development of a player that former manager Joe Maddon would speak of, saying that Snell had to get past the first two of being happy to be in the majors, and fighting to stay, to realize he was good enough to compete.

Snell said he finally got it, "that I don't need to be any better than I'm doing.''

"The biggest thing is confidence,'' Archer said. "And he trusts his stuff 100 percent. He didn't develop anything new other than more confidence.''

Cash said the transformation has been impressive to watch.

"There were questions all around about his overall mental state, the way he went out and performed, attacked hitters, all that,'' Cash said. "And to his credit, he's changed all that.''

That loving feeling

The Rays took a risk in sending Snell back to Triple A eight starts into last season. But rather than get defensive or irritated, he seemed somewhat relieved and eager for a reset in a comfortable and less-pressurized setting.

Snyder, who was the Durham coach then, is the closest to Snell of all Rays staff, having bonded as they moved up through the system on similar tracks, enough that Snell calls him "a life coach" as well as a pitching coach.

They sat in the stands for an hour that first day and started an ongoing conversation. Some days it was congenial, though Cash said there also was tough love, Snyder delivering some hard messages, "hitting him between the eyes and telling him now is the time to define yourself.''

Though it took Snell a while to figure it out on the mound, he understood the urgency and finally had that moment.

"It kind of felt like baseball was slipping away in a sense,'' Snell said, "just because I knew I wasn't doing as good as I could have done.''

And, eventually, he went and did something about it.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Five things about Blake

• Collects shoes, with 250-plus pairs

• Has a twin, though not identical, brother, Tyler

• Does everything but play baseball right-handed

• Wears No. 4 because it was his favorite in youth leagues and the date of his birthday

• Uses "Snellzilla" as his video game and social media handle

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