It seemed like the perfect storm for Blake Snell.
Picture this: a career season with the San Diego Padres resulting in the 2023 NL Cy Young Award, complete with a trip to free agency right around the corner and a plethora of clubs in need of elite starting pitching. If there’s such thing as an ideal walk year, Snell would appear to have just had one.
So why aren’t teams lined up out the door to sign the former Padres ace? It’s complicated.
Blake Snell Brings Upside to Any Rotation
To be clear, Snell has received interest from various teams. The Toronto Blue Jays are the latest club to publicly monitor the southpaw’s market, along with the Red Sox, Phillies, Giants, Angels and Yankees, the latter of whom went as far as extending an offer.
But when does said interest turn into action? That’s anyone’s guess.
In terms of talent and pure stuff, few pitchers in baseball can match Blake Snell’s upside. One visit to his Baseball Savant page can paint you a narrative of dominance, as evidenced by all the red bars from his 2023 season.
Two categories stand out in particular: whiff rate and strikeout rate, where Snell ranked in the 98th and 94th percentiles, respectively. That speaks to his penchant for overwhelming hitters on pure stuff alone. And even when batters did make contact, it was weak, as they averaged an exit velocity of just 87.2 miles per hour off his pitches.
Snell’s elite home run rate (0.75 per nine innings) is a further reflection of his success generating weak contact. His ability to keep the ball in the yard holds even more weight given the uptick in home runs the league saw this past year.
When putting the whole profile together, the end result is a potentially dominant pitcher who strikes out nearly 30% of hitters he faces while inducing tons of weak contact. In theory, that’s a formula for success, and we saw that play out in a big way for Snell in 2023.
But what if his 2.25 ERA over 32 starts for the Padres last season wasn’t even his best year as a big leaguer? That’s because his 2018 AL Cy Young campaign with the Tampa Bay Rays was arguably more dominant.
That season, the left-hander averaged fewer walks per nine innings (3.19 in 2018 versus 4.95 in 2023) while maintaining a similar strikeout rate as he had this past season (31.6% in 2018 compared to 31.5% in 2023). Perhaps more importantly? Snell’s 2018 WHIP was substantially lower (0.97, versus 1.19 in 2023), as was his FIP (2.94 FIP against a 1.89 ERA in 2018 compared to a 3.44 FIP against a 2.25 ERA in 2023).
In other words? Blake Snell is capable of reaching an even higher gear than the one he tapped into to win his second Cy Young in 2023. And that should entice every big league club looking to insert an ace into its rotation.
After taking home the league’s top pitching honor for the second time last season, the 31-year-old became just the seventh pitcher in MLB history to win the Cy Young in both the American and National Leagues. That accomplishment is now even more prestigious given the National League’s adoption of the full-time designated hitter in 2022, which eliminated the perceived “easy out” of a pitcher batting eighth or ninth.
On top of all that, Snell has been one of the league’s more durable arms dating back to his 19-start rookie year in 2016. The southpaw has never made fewer than 23 starts in a season since then, the only exception being the shortened 2020 campaign in which he started 11 contests. He isn’t exactly a workhorse, having qualified for the ERA title just twice in his career, but he ranks among the top 15 pitchers in starts since 2018.
Blake Snell’s Downside Could Be Scaring Teams Off
We’ve acknowledged Blake Snell’s talent and durability. But reward doesn’t stand alone; there’s also plenty of risk to absorb when it comes to signing the southpaw.
The two most obvious red flags are both surface-level: age and contract demands. At 31, Snell is not exactly getting younger, and we’ve seen teams hesitate to pay pitchers significant dollars over the long haul if they’re past that magical number of 30.
As for his contract demands, it’s no surprise that Snell hired Scott Boras, MLB’s super agent, to navigate what could potentially be his only trip to free agency in his career. It’s well documented that Boras clients consistently command top-of-the-market money, and while no one is suggesting Snell doesn’t deserve a payday coming off his sparkling season, his high demands are certainly bogging down his free agency.
Beneath the surface is where the real risk lies, however. For starters, control was one of Snell’s few areas of weakness in 2023. In fact, his 13.3% walk rate stands as the highest of his career to date. Any team giving Snell a serious look would be right to express some concern that despite his elite stuff, his command remains a work in progress.
The same can be said of Snell’s below-average chase rate of 27.9%, a rather surprising figure given his ridiculous whiff rate of 37.3%. His whiff rate is bound to regress in 2024 and beyond as it normalizes to within a reasonable range of his chase rate. For Snell to continue generating swings and misses, he needs to make batters offer at more pitches outside the strike zone. Yet when opponents know how much he struggles with command, they’re more likely to keep the bat on their shoulders.
These metrics help explain why Snell’s expected ERA in 2023 was 3.79 (per Baseball Savant). His 3.44 FIP also backs up the theory that he’s due for regression in 2024; that’s more than a full run higher than his 2.25 ERA. If nothing else, Snell’s career 3.20 ERA also indicates a return to “normal” this coming season.
The good news for Snell? His numbers are still excellent across the board, even with regression factored in. FanGraphs Depth Charts, for example, project Snell to start 31 games in 2024 with a 3.66 ERA and 221 strikeouts in 176 innings pitched (11.3 K/9). That’s a season many clubs would love to sign up for, even if those numbers are a far cry from Snell’s 2023 dominance.
Is Snell Worth the Investment?
The answer is subjective, really.
There’s no doubt Blake Snell’s price tag is expensive. And with plenty of reasons to believe he’s due for regression in 2024, it’s understandable that clubs would approach contract negotiations with some degree of skepticism. Paying long-term for a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 is not particularly appealing either, as we’re witnessing with both Snell and fellow free agent southpaw Jordan Montgomery.
Yet despite a negative industry perception that appears to be encompassing Snell’s free agency, a further dive into his numbers actually supports a favorable narrative of the 31-year-old’s talent and pitchability.
Ultimately, Snell’s success in free agency will come down to whether or not clubs believe he’s truly an ace. Or perhaps a team will act out of desperation. Regardless, he won’t go unsigned for much longer; expect the veteran lefty to have a new deal before spring training.