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Wondering what’s wrong with Blake Snell? You might not believe the answer

His ERA has nearly doubled from last year but the reigning Cy Young Award winner can still be as nasty as ever.
Rays pitcher Blake Snell celebrates a strikeout to end an inning earlier this season. Snell's overall numbers are less spectacular than 2018, but he's still got some of the game's nastiest stuff. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  Times)
Rays pitcher Blake Snell celebrates a strikeout to end an inning earlier this season. Snell's overall numbers are less spectacular than 2018, but he's still got some of the game's nastiest stuff. (DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times)
Published Jun. 19

ST. PETERSBURG — First pitch is hours away, and you’re feeling troubled.

Not panicky, not exactly nervous. Just a little concerned, perhaps.

Once upon a time, this would have been an afternoon to savor. Big game on the schedule, and Blake Snell on the mound. What could possibly be better?

Well, now that you’ve asked:

How about the 2018 version of Snell?

Yeah, that’s unfair. Snell didn’t just have a breakout season in “18, he had a once-in-a-generation season. He was practically untouchable for nearly four months, and that’s not an exaggeration. Beginning with a start at Houston one year ago today, Snell went 14-2 with a 1.25 ERA down the stretch.

That’s just nuts.

So, um, where’s the crazy now?

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Fourteen starts into 2019, Snell is 4-5 with a 3.70 ERA. He’s given up nearly as many earned runs (31) by mid-June as he did (38) all of last year.

Is there something wrong with his arm? No. Was last season a complete fluke? No. Is his control a problem? No. Has he lost the zip on his fastball or the bite on his breaking pitches? No and no.

In some ways, Snell’s stuff is more impressive than it was last season. He’s generating more swing-and-misses than ever before. He’s averaging more strikeouts and less walks. Even his percentage of hard-hit balls has gone down.

So how do you explain this?

Warily, I suppose.

There are a handful of theories but no obvious smoking gun. The easiest way to explain it is Snell has had less luck and worse timing. Line drives that might have been caught last year are now reaching the outfield grass, and a few extra fly balls have left the park.

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But the biggest difference has been Snell’s performance with runners in scoring position. Last season, Snell stranded runners on base at an otherworldly pace.

Opponents hit just .088 (10-for-114) against him with runners on second or third. This season, hitters have a .237 average (14-for-59) with runners in scoring position against Snell.

That, alone, could account for a big chunk of his increased ERA.

Now it’s possible there are other factors that may have contributed to this. Manager Kevin Cash, and Snell himself, have talked about his pitch selection at times.

It’s true, Snell is throwing his fastball less than he once did. Last June, he threw his fastball 55.5 percent of the time. This June, it’s down to 44.1. Instead, he’s throwing his curveball and changeup more.

Normally, that might be an “A-ha!” kind of discovery. Except, Snell actually began throwing his fastball less last September (41 percent of the time) and he still looked unhittable.

The problem could be that Snell gets too enamored with his off-speed pitches, and that occasionally lessens their effectiveness.

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Another possibility might be Snell’s psyche. He has seemed more frustrated on the mound at times this season. He’s taking a lot more time between pitches (going from 23.4 seconds last year to a ridiculously slow 26.6 seconds in 2019), and has worked with a wide assortment of catchers due to injuries.

But all of that has the feel of amateur psychiatry.

The bottom line is that Snell is still one of the elite pitchers in the American League. The issue is that he was so good last season, and a lot of fans assumed they would see the same pitcher this year.

It’s almost stunning to realize the Rays are still near the top of the AL East while going .500 in Snell’s 14 starts. That’s not all his fault because run support has been an issue, but you could make a good argument that it’s the difference between first and second place today.

The good news is the Rays are not alarmed by his first-half numbers. There are no guarantees, but everything suggests the numbers will soon tilt in Snell’s favor again.

Today would be a nice start.

Past vs. present

At this point last season, Blake Snell was beginning his drive toward the Cy Young Award. He’s got some ground to make up in 2019.

2018

March/April: 4-1 record, 2.52 ERA, 35.2 IP, 41 SO

May: 3-2 record, 2.60 ERA, 34.2 IP, 35 SO

June: 3-1 record, 1.74 ERA, 31 IP, 37 SO

July: 2-1 record, 2.04 ERA, 17.2 IP, 21 SO

August: 4-0 record, 1.04 ERA 26 IP, 34 SO

September: 5-0 record, 1.26 ERA, 35.2 IP, 53 SO

2019

March/April: 2-2 record, 2.54 ERA, 28.1 IP, 39 SO

May: 1-2 record, 3.51 ERA, 33.1 IP, 44 SO

June: 1-1 record, 6.59 ERA, 13.2 IP, 18 SO

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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