Welcome to Smash Or Pass, a new offseason series in which we’ll examine various free agents and trade targets to determine whether they make sense for the Red Sox. Today, we’re discussing a pitcher coming off of a dominant year: Blake Snell.
Who is he and where does he come from?
He’s the (likely) soon-to-be two-time Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell. You may remember him from his time with Tampa Bay (2016-2020), but he’s pitched in the NL with the Padres the past three seasons.
What position does he play?
As many of the subjects of this series will be, he’s a starting pitcher.
Is he any good?
In short, yes. He’s the favorite to win the NL Cy Young and is coming off his second-best season as a pro. Here’s the catch: his best season was all the way back in 2018. He’s pretty much always been above average, but he’s had up-and-down years. Following his 2018 Cy Young campaign, he posted a 103 ERA+. Two years ago, he ended the year with a 92 ERA+ in 120 innings.
So, did Snell make a change to get this dominance to stick, or is this just statistical noise and fortunate outcomes? Given the way Snell pitches, it’s difficult to say for sure. Snell is what I would call “a nibbler”. He only threw 36.6% of his pitches in the strike zone this season, the lowest of any starting pitcher. Hitters know this and don’t swing the bat very often. This results in two things. First, Snell walks a ton of batters (13.3% walk rate). Second, when hitters do swing, they’re often flailing at junk, leading to some pretty absurd whiff rates.
Snell's success boils down to how much of a feel he has for his off-speed pitches. In April, Snell didn’t have a feel for his changeup, and he suffered as a result. In five games, he threw 23 innings with a 5.48 ERA. He’s not the type to pound the strike zone and mow down hitters that way. If he’s not getting whiffs, he’s going to have a hard time getting outs. The approach is going to lead to ups and downs. This applies to both the season level and the game level. In 2021, he didn’t have his changeup at all, went away from the pitch, and had his worst year as a pro.
Outside of the changeup, Snell throws a slider and a curveball that both perform well. Again, he’s not throwing them in the zone, but rather using them to get chases outside the zone. Each pitch returns a whiff rate of over 50%, placing both in the top 15 in whiff rate among starting pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. While they’re both quality offerings, the changeup is the lynchpin. Being left-handed, he needs a way to get right-handed hitters out. The changeup is the first secondary he goes to and sets up his breakers well. Long story short, Snell is very talented, but it can unravel in a hurry.
Tl;dr, just give me his 2023 stats.
32 Starts, 180 IP, 115 H, 99 BB, 234 SO, 2.25 ERA, 182 ERA+
Snell was second in the league in K%, and first in the league in BB%. I guess you could call him “effectively wild”.
Why would he be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?
He’s a starting pitcher who just threw 180 innings with a sub-2.5 ERA. Of his 32 starts in 2023, he failed to pitch at least five innings in just three of them. He’s also been fairly durable throughout his career, having never missed time for a major surgery like Tommy John. For a team whose bullpen suffered from fatigue down the stretch, it’s hard to turn that down.
As I mentioned, Snell also strikes out a ton of batters, meaning the defense has less work to do. The infield defense should improve with a full season of Trevor Story, but it’s unlikely the team will become defensively elite in one offseason. Fewer balls in play likely isn’t a bad thing.
Why would he not be a good fit for the 2024 Red Sox?
As I said earlier, there are going to be ups and downs with Snell. The Red Sox still don’t have a pitching coach and haven’t had a ton of success “fixing” pitchers in the recent past. There’s a chance Snell signs a big deal, loses the feel for his changeup, and the new coaching staff can’t help him find it again. Snell is a high-risk, high-reward pitcher, and the Red Sox can’t afford to swing and miss on a big contract starter. There isn’t a surplus of high-end pitching talent on the market, but there may be safer, options available, even if they do have lower ceilings.
What will he cost?
Bob Nightengale seems to think he could sign a contract worth over $200 million. To me, that seems like it’s on the high side. He’s only 30-years-old, but due to his year-to-year fluctuations, I’m not sure a team will give him the years to get him to $200 million. Carlos Rodon signed at six years, $162 million at age 30. Snell will likely land a similar deal, say six years, $170 million. Disclaimer: I have no idea how people come up with these numbers. My full-time job is as an accountant, but I struggle to ballpark these things.
Show me a cool highlight.
Have I mentioned that Snell strikes hitters out? Here he is striking out 12 Rays in seven innings. High fastballs and low breakers are how he does it, and the command was pinpoint in this one.
Smash or pass?
Maybe my standards are too high, but I’m passing on Snell. I know starting pitching is a desperate need and there isn’t an excess of options on the market, but the cost just feels too high. Every pitcher is going to have bad outings, but Snell is virtually guaranteed to have a cold couple of weeks, maybe even a month. If I’m spending $200 million on a starting pitcher, I want more consistency than that.
I also have a weird feeling he wouldn’t thrive in Boston. It’s just a hunch, but something tells me he isn’t built to handle the pressure that comes with Boston, especially with his frustrating style. Maybe it’s because he streams on Twitch, and David Price famously had problems with the media and was an avid gamer/former Ray. I wouldn’t be upset if the Red Sox signed Snell, but in my opinion, he shouldn’t be plan A.