Making a case for, against Rays’ Blake Snell for AL Cy Young

Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell walks onto the field to receive the Don Zimmer MVP award on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (MONICA HERNDON   |   Times)
Rays starting pitcher Blake Snell walks onto the field to receive the Don Zimmer MVP award on Friday, Sept. 28, 2018. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published Sept. 29, 2018|Updated Sept. 29, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell won one pretty big honor Friday, voted the Rays Don Zimmer Most Valuable Player Award unanimously by the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

"I think you guys got it right,'' manager Kevin Cash said before Friday's game with the Blue Jays. "When Blake steps on the mound, we've got a really good chance to win that game. He's provided that consistently. His numbers, his record speak for it.''

For similar reasons, the Rays feel confident that Snell, who Saturday night makes the final start of his spectacular season, is deserving of a grander and more prestigious honor, the American League Cy Young Award.

The snazzy 8½ x 11 info media sheet headlined Attack of the Cy Zilla! the team has been sending out highlights his credentials, hoping to catch the eyes of the 30 BBWAA voters, two representing each AL city, whose ballots are due before the playoffs and the outcome revealed in November.

Snell's base numbers are certainly impressive, starting with an AL-most 21 wins, .178 opponents average, 7.1 WAR and 1.90 ERA that, if it were to hold, would be third lowest in the league in the DH era (since 1973).

His 26 (of 30) starts allowing two or fewer runs are the most in the AL in 40 years. He has won his past nine starts, allowing a total of six earned runs. His 0.96 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is second best in the league. The .555 OPS hitters have posted against him is lower than all but one of the 142 qualified AL hitters, only Baltimore's Chris Davis was worse, at .539.

Though that sub-2.00 ERA, especially pitching in the AL East, is sexy, the Rays feel Snell's strongest case is how he has pitched against the best teams in the league.

Specifically, his 9-2, 2.00 ERA in 12 starts against the five most potent offenses — Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Astros and A's — which also happen to the be the five playoff teams. That's 16 earned runs total in 72 innings of work.

None of the other Cy Young contenders are anywhere close:

Player, W-L, ERA, Starts

Gerrit Cole, Hou., 4-0, 3.55, 8
Justin Verlander, Hou., 3-0, 2.31, 6
Chris Sale, Bos., 3-2, 3.15, 6
Corey Kluber, Clev., 3-1, 2.91, 5
Trevor Bauer, Clev., 0-2, 3.18, 5

Similarly, Snell's number against teams with .500 or better records are better:

Player, W-L, ERA, Starts
Snell, 11-3, 1.66, 16
Cole, 7-4, 3.03, 18
Verlander, 5-4, 3.06, 13
Kluber, 5-5, 3.81, 13
Sale, 5-3, 2.88, 10
Bauer, 3-2, 2.21, 9

So what is the strongest argument against Snell?

He does trail in some other key stats, such as having a lower strikeout/9 inning ratio (10.81) than Cole, Verlander and Bauer.

But, basically, that he didn't pitch enough.

Snell missed two starts around a short stint on the disabled list coming out of the All-Star Game, then limited to four innings his first start back, five the next two.

That gives him 175⅔ going into Saturday and, even with a decent outing, well short of the current low for a Cy Young winner, 198⅓ by the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw in 2014. (Bauer has only 171⅓ innings, Sale 158.)

Getting Snell over 180 should help, though it comes with a risk of giving up enough runs (say four over five-six innings) to push his ERA back over 2.00.

In an advanced analytical era where wins are devalued, stats being used estimate fielding-independent performance and are weighted by game situations among others, how big a deal is not reaching the old standard of 200 innings?

It could mean a lot.

For example, two national writers recently shared their thinking (though not actual votes). Jayson Stark of the Athletic agonized over the innings but picked Snell, with Verlander second and Sale third. ESPN's Keith Law, however, essentially dismissed Snell, putting him fifth, with Verlander winning, then Sale, Cole and Bauer. (Worth noting, in Verlander's additional 32⅓ innings, he has allowed 44 more hits and 23 more runs than Snell.)

In other words, Snell has won 21 games, with a chance at 22 on Saturday.
But what would be his biggest win is far from certain.

NOTE: Snell is the third starting pitcher to win the team MVP award, joining Tanyon Sturtze in 2001 and James Shields in 2011. Infielder Joey Wendle was unanimously voted the outstanding rookie, and outfielder Mallex Smith the Paul C. Smith Champion Award, given to the player who best exemplifies the spirt of true professionalism on and off the field, in a close vote over third baseman Matt Duffy.

Contact Marc Topkin at Follow @TBTimes_Rays.