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How the Rays signing of D.J. Snelten was a true Twitter moment

Social media played a big part as Rays officials saw Snelten’s videos on the Internet, thanks to @PitchingNinja and others.
Tampa Bay Rays pitcher D.J. Snelten during the start of spring training in Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, February 13, 2020. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays pride themselves on creative thinking and exhaustive scouting in finding players anywhere they can.

This winter that included signing a pitcher off Twitter.

D.J. Snelten had talent, and a small sampling of big-league time with the Giants in 2018. But after being released last spring by the Orioles, spending the summer pitching in independent ball and the first part of the offseason remaking his delivery, he tried posting videos of his improved form on social media.

Rays pro scouting director Kevin Ibach happened to be looking at his phone at the right time, remembered Snelten and was intrigued enough to have staff check him out.

Shortly thereafter, the Rays had their first Internet hookup.

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“Sometimes what you see on Twitter is not what you see in person,’’ Ibach said. “In this case, everything lined up.’’

Though every 20-something seems to live on Instagram, Twitter and other social platforms, Snelten, 27, was reluctant to put himself out there. He admitted to “social anxiety” growing up about using social media and knew it would be humbling as a former big-leaguer.

But he wanted another chance, and he wasn’t getting calls, texts or direct messages from teams wanting to sign him.

“One day I swallowed my pride, I’m like, look, I’m going to be shameless and market myself a little bit,’’ said Snelten, a 6-foot-6 lefty with a funky delivery.

First, he had to get better, knowing he’d be more appealing if he could get his velocity from the lower to upper 90s.

So he went to get some help, which also was a product of the social media age.

First, Snelten reached out via direct message to Nick Sanzeri, a college coach, instructor, advisor and consultant he had seen on Twitter helping pitchers at all levels.

Snelten sent Sanzeri videos, asking for evaluation, specifically if he was using his legs enough. Sanzeri replied that he clearly wasn’t, that if he did he could add 5-6 mph to his fastball, and offered some advice, such as the positioning of his hips.

“I was like, if there if there’s even a one percent chance that’s true, that’s the difference between being out the door and having all the opportunities presented in front of you,’’ Snelten said.

He became a man possessed.

He had already decided to leave his Chicago-area home to spend the offseason back at the University of Minnesota taking a full course load toward his sports management degree, and was working 25 hours a week at a Pitch 2 Pitch training facility.

But almost every day, he’d send Sanzeri smartphone video of his improving form. Sometime when throwing on a mound. Others just when going through his motion with the phone on the floor of his bedroom. Sanzeri, who Snelten has never met, would reply with feedback.

Eventually, the improvement became obvious. Which is where the Internet helped again.

Snelten and Sanzeri posted videos of his improved form and knew enough to tag @FlatgroundApp, a Twitter account that provides a forum to showcase players, amateurs and pros, who might otherwise go unnoticed.

Flatground is run by Rob Friedman, who also has a vastly more popular account of pitching highlights and info, @PitchingNinja, with nearly 200,000 followers. Snelten had also reached out via Twitter directly to Friedman. Though they also never met, Friedman wanted to help spread the word.

“I saw him (on the video) throwing flames,’’ Friedman said Thursday. “It also helped he was wearing a Pitching Ninja shirt, I can’t lie. I saw his stuff and it moved really well, and he was throwing hard. I knew that would open up some eyes. I just kept on it. Every time he tweeted something I made sure it was seen. And I also tried to stir the pot, because the more I (post) stuff, like, “Hey. D.J. did you throw today?’ it creates a feeding frenzy the more teams that see it … almost a bidding process for the player.’’

That worked.

“It went from no phone calls,’’ Snelten said, “to my agent calling me and saying, 'What the hell did you do?’ ‘’

He threw for some teams, talked to others. Rays special assistant Bobby Heck was visiting his daughter, Jordyn, who does TV sports in Rochester, Minn., and went to take a look in December. Heck liked what he saw.

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Snelten was eager to sign, getting a minor-league deal with an invite to camp. “Understanding the Rays are the No. 1 development organization and I spent this whole offseason developing, what better place to end up than being with an organization that cares and wants to continue helping you get better,’’ he said.

From the humbling experience of pitching for the Chicago Dogs in the American Association — “It cost me more paying for the I-94 tolls to go out there than I was actually making” — to the soul-searching decision to keep playing to asking for help and then awkwardly going public with the videos, Snelten is a success story for the power of social media, baseball style.

“I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all where we’re going to get in the practice of just signing guys off Twitter,’’ Ibach said. “But he probably won’t be our last.’’

Rays non-roster invitee D.J. Snelten. [JOHN BAZEMORE | AP]

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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