2015 Minor League Player Of The Year: Blake Snell

Design a breakout season for a pitcher, and it would look like Blake Snell‘s 2015.

A supplemental first-round pick of the Rays out of a Washington high school in 2011, Snell still had not progressed past A-ball entering the year. Then he opened the year with 21 scoreless innings to show he was too good for high Class A, en route to a 46-inning scoreless streak. He finished the year in Triple-A, posting the best walk rate of his career.

Few pitchers have approached Snell’s success over the past decade. He finished 15-4, 1.41 overall that included 163 strikeouts in 134 innings. His 1.41 ERA, which led all minor league qualifiers, is the lowest for a full-season pitcher since Justin Verlander’s 1.29 in 2005, and he ranked among the leaders in wins (tied for fourth), strikeouts (also tied for fourth), WHIP (ninth, 1.02) and opponent average (first, .182).

The statistics tell the story of a pitcher who has fulfilled the promise that Rays area scout Paul Kirsch recorded in his amateur report on Snell, which summarized his looks at the Shoreline, Wash., lefthander from July 2010 through May 2011.

Kirsch recorded Snell as 6-foot-4, 180 pounds, after he had shot up 10 inches from his 5-foot-6 sophomore stature at Shorewood High. His radar gun registered the speed of Snell’s three pitches: a fastball that peaked at 94 mph, dipped as low as 87 and averaged 91, a 72-76 mph curveball and an 80-83 mph changeup.

Kirsch graded all three pitches in their current states on the 20-80 scouting scale, marking Snell’s fastball as a 55 (slightly above major league average) to go with a 50 change and 45 curve. Kirsch projected all three to get better, with Snell earning a future 65 fastball, 60 curve and 60 changeup with average life and average future command of all three.

Next, he graded his arm action and delivery as 60s as well, and he described Snell physically, with words that for the most part still hold true today: “Medium large, tall frame; elongated features . . . long levers; XL hands, should fill out well; physically immature; baby face.” Under “Makeup,” Kirsch added, “some pissant in him on field.”

The summary also goes into more detail about each of Snell’s pitches. Kirsch reports on Snell’s loose, easy arm and notes there’s “more (velocity) in the tank; feel he will throw very hard someday soon.” He notes his loose wrist–crucial for improving his breaking ball–and quality changeup with “late tumble life when down.” And calls him “extremely projectable” with “very high upside.”

But the real fortune-telling comes at the end. “Consistency of stuff only thing that is keeping him from being on the top of my pref list . . . If it all comes together for this kid, I believe he could be a No. 2 type starter . . . I can’t imagine how good he can be when he is about 21 years old or so.”

We don’t have to imagine anymore. The 22-year-old Snell–our 2015 Minor League Player of the Year–has closed the gap between his reality and his potential. His dominant season put him on the cusp of becoming the Rays’ latest ace, following in the lineage of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, David Price and Chris Archer.

“I’m the same guy; I still just have fun playing baseball,” Snell says, “because in my mind I’m just an average guy . . . I feel like it’s still high school. How have I changed? I feel like I’m a lot better at pitching.”

The change really started in 2013, in instructional league following Snell’s first full season in the minors. As is their wont, the Rays took it slow with Snell, sending him to two Rookie-ball assignments–the Gulf Coast League in 2011 and the Appalachian League in 2012–before sending him to full-season ball with low Class A Bowling Green in 2013. The “long runway” approach, as Rays officials put it, gave Snell time to grow physically and mentally before the grind of a full minor league season.

Snell stumbled through his first full season, walking 73 in 99 innings for Bowling Green to rank second in the Midwest League and going 4-9, 4.27. The Rays figured he would have to tweak his delivery if he was going to execute the organization’s plan to pitch inside with authority. With a fastball that was steadily increasing in velocity as he added strength, Snell tantalized the Rays with his ability to bust righthanded hitters inside with his fastball and put them away with an impressive changeup that faded away from them.

Then-Hot Rods pitching coach Kyle Snyder and longtime Rays roving pitching coordinator Dick Bosman had broached the subject with Snell, both before the season and in 2013.

“The battles we had with this guy on his mechanics, well, he was a stubborn kid,” Bosman says. “We knew the better way to teach it was to see him pitch and fail and teach him from that . . . There was plenty of stuff Blake Snell didn’t want to do early on, but let him get his ass handed to him a few times, pretty soon you’ve got a damn receptive audience.

“Kyle deserves all the credit for bringing this kid around tactfully, and it has been a wonderful progression . . . He now pitches inside well to righthanded hitters. It takes courage to pitch inside, and he’s got plenty of that good courage.”

Snell’s breaking ball has evolved in the last two years as well, beginning in instructional league after the 2013 season. “I learned the curveball from Dick Bosman,” he says, as he shifted the grip on the pitch, creating spin more with his middle finger rather than his index finger. “I should know my fingers. I’m a pitcher.”

He said playing catch with teammate Austin Pruitt helped him hone the grip and release of the pitch, working on getting four-seam spin on the curve, similar to his fastball.

“The power finger is the middle finger,” says Snyder, who has seen the change firsthand as Triple-A Durham’s pitching coach working with Snell over his final eight starts of 2015. “The other thing we have stressed is the commitment, the conviction, and there’s a lot to be said for that. With conviction comes an element of deception. If he’s selling all four pitches, fastball/curveball/slider/changeup, from the same slot, it gives you some room for error.”

Snell hasn’t needed much room for error this season. His 46-inning scoreless streak finally ended in the first inning of a May 23 game against Kyle Schwarber and Double-A Tennessee. Snell says he didn’t want to remember that game as the game that ended his scoreless streak, realizing he had to do something positive to make it stand out otherwise.

So he struck out 12–a career best–in just six innings. He got Schwarber three times.

Snell has mostly fulfilled the “future” aspect of Kirsch’s amateur report. He has added an inch and 20 pounds, and added strength has translated to improved arm speed. Snyder categorized Snell’s arm speed as elite now, and Kirsch now says he considered it average at the time.

The loose wrist and ability to spin a breaking ball from high school have translated into the swing-and-miss breaking balls that Snell throws now. Consistency with both remains a final piece for Snell to polish, as well as quickening his times to the plate and improving his command. He did that this year, improving his walk rate from 4.4 per nine innings in 2014 to 3.6, including just 2.6 in 44 Triple-A innings.

As Kirsh recorded, Snell had the body to pitch, and the “control tower works,” as Bosman said, referencing Snell’s aptitude and overall makeup.

Perhaps that comes from his baseball background. His father Dave pitched six minor league seasons, reaching Double-A, and schooled Snell and his three brothers (including twin Tyler, who played in junior college) in the game.

“He humbles me pretty quick,” Snell says of Tyler. “So I could throw a no-hitter, and he would say, ‘It’s because you didn’t face me–I’d take you deep.’ “

Snell spends offseasons back home in Washington, collecting Jordan brand shoes–he’s got around 200 pairs–and cheering for the Seahawks. He’s passionate about his hometown Washington Huskies and his dog Junior, a chocolate lab.

“No tobacco, no booze, no girlfriend. His best friend is his dog,” Bosman jokes. “He’s just totally determined to get to the big leagues. He’s just zeroed in on where he wants to go.”

Kirsch saw the focus back in high school, saw Snell struggle with command in a big road game, where opposing fans were chirping at him. Snell said there were about 60 scouts on hand, and while he couldn’t hear them dissecting his performance, “I could hear my heart beating.”

Kirsch, who had his scouting director, R.J. Harrison at the game, saw something, though. “He upped his game,” Kirsch recalls. “He punched out the next two guys, and he just looked over at their fans as they died down. When we got done, R.J. just said, ‘He’s got a little (jerk) in him,’ and it was a compliment.”

A first-round pick and significant prospect as a player, Snyder sees Snell reaching his lofty goals: “He operates in the present. He’s very focused and strong-willed. Those are things you can’t teach. He’s very driven and he wants to be a No. 1 starter in the big leagues. There’s no question that’s his ceiling, and he’s confident he’ll reach it. Certain guys have confidence, but with certain guys, confidence can be a liability. That’s not the case with Blake.”

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