ST. PETERSBURG – Blake Snell first started thinking about it at the end of last season, then more as spring training drew near. He shared first with teammate Chris Archer on the phone, then later with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder over a January lunch what, given his previous performance, seemed an unrealistic goal. That he was going to win the 2018 American League Cy Young award.
Archer reacted like buddies do. "I was like, Whatever, dude, 'cause I'd said I would win it, not to mention there's a ton of other extremely other talented pitchers in the league.''
Snyder was a bit more reserved in hearing the lefty's lofty aspirations, but acknowledged he, too, was caught a bit off guard.
Snell was undeterred. Seizing on his strong finish in what still was a 5-7, 4.04 mess that included two demotions to the minors, he believed that with his increased commitment to conditioning, his improved pitching and the proper drive and focus, he could make the remarkable leap.
"I told (Archer) I don't care what anyone thinks, I'm going to do it. I told Kyle that, too,'' Snell said. "For it to happen is crazy. It feels really good. That's what I set as my goal, and I was able to accomplish it.''
Confirmation came Wednesday night, when Snell was announced as the winner of the game's most prestigious pitching award. The coronation will be ongoing.
Snell's margin over Houston's Justin Verlander wasn't large, 169 points to 154, though his victory in the voting by 30 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America was decisive, receiving 17 first-place votes, 11 for second and two for third. Verlander got the other 13 first place votes, 13 for second, three for third and one for fourth. Cleveland's Corey Kluber was a distant third.
Snell was home in Seattle, surrounded by family and friends, plus an MLB Network camera crew, waiting for the announcement, unexpectedly feeling nervous in the final hour.
He made a good case in making good on his pledge.
Snell, 25, led the AL with a 1.89 ERA (third lowest in the DH era), 21 wins (vs. five losses), a .178 opponents average and .554 OPS, a 7.4 WAR per baseball-reference.com. He allowed two or fewer runs in 27 of his 31 starts and one or none in 21, winning nine straight down the stretch with a 1.03 ERA. And, of significance, posted a 9-2, 2.00 mark in 12 starts vs. the AL's top scoring and playoff bound teams, including four vs. the eventual champ Red Sox (3-0, 1.08).
"He put on a display,'' said Archer, who was traded in July to Pittsburgh. "One of the most remarkable seasons of recent history.''
What Snell didn't know, and the reason for his worry, was how much the voters would weigh his one shortcoming, a total of just 180 2/3 innings as the result of a two-week DL stint and cautious handling afterward by his bosses, compared to Verlander's 214. No starter in a full season had won a Cy Young with less than Clayton Kershaw's 198 1/3 innings in 2014.
"I thought the only issue was innings,'' Snell said. "Everything else was no issue, that was pretty solid. … The only debate I ever heard was the amount of innings. They think I Could have got worse or whatever. But if you really look at the numbers, I was only getting better, I was only getting stronger. I felt really good. I would have been excited to see what an extra 30 would have looked like. I really felt like I could have lowered my ERA more, honestly. I guess next year I'm going to have to prove it.''
Snyder saw as soon as Snell showed up in Port Charlotte for the start of camp how much stronger and better conditioned he was, how much sharper his pitches were, how his fastball zipped a couple miles an hour quicker.
"He felt really good about things, and you could see the confidence build from there,'' Snyder said.
By early June, Snyder and the rest of the staff sensed Snell was capable of a special season. His shift to the first base side of the rubber in mid-2017 had helped with his command, but now he was showing ongoing improvement in controlling counts. Then further implementing his curveball to expand his repertoire to four above-average pitches "really took it to another level.''
Snell, as it his nature, talked just as much in a series of interviews Wednesday about what he can do better than what he did. Just as he said the strong finish to 2017 provided the springboard to this season's success, he already has specifics targets for improvement for 2019, such as cutting down on his walks, which he felt forced him out of games too early, and to get to the 200-inning milestone.
"I had a lot of help to push me to be as elite as I wanted to be, I just had to put the work in to do it,'' Snell said. "To be able to do that and see what it got me just makes me more hungry to see how much better I can get and how much more I can help this team win ballgames.''
At some point Wednesday night, when the party dies does down and the text messages stop coming in – 400 and counting in the first hour, prompting the crack, "I didn't know I gave my number out to that many people" – Snell will reflect on his biggest career win, joining David Price as the only Cy Young winners in Rays history.
Archer and Snyder, meanwhile, were looking back on what really wasn't such a preposterous prediction after all.
"He said that was his goal, and here we are,'' Archer said. "He manifested his destiny. He really did.''
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays