BOSTON—Making the jump from the minors to the majors is never easy, no matter how filthy your stuff or explosive your tools.
It’s a lesson reinforced every year, and one Blake Snell is experiencing firsthand. Snell, 23, is in his rookie season with the Rays after being named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2015.
The 6-foot-4, 180-pound lefthander has experienced his share of ups and downs in his rookie season, and came out of Labor Day weekend 5-7, 3.39 while averaging just under five innings per start.
“I’m learning more and more each start,” Snell said. “The biggest difference is hitters are a lot smarter. They know what you’re trying to do. They won’t chase your pitch. What I’m throwing, when I’m throwing it, you have to know the reason behind it. The mental side is something I need to focus on more. Still have the same stuff. I’m just getting a lot smarter pitching.”
Snell was a supplemental first round pick, No. 52 overall, in 2011 out of Shorewood (Shoreline, Wash.) High just north of Seattle and he climbed up the Rays’ system, culminating in a 15-4, 1.41 mark with 163 strikeouts in 134 innings between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham last season.
With a mid-90s fastball, devastating changeup and polished slider in his arsenal, rapidly improving command and advanced poise on the mound, Snell entered 2016 as a prime Rookie of the Year candidate in the American League.
But as he learned the hard way, it’s never that easy.
After a strong start in his major league debut—five innings, two hits, one run allowed and six strikeouts at Yankee Stadium on April 23—Snell got knocked around in his first extended big league look.
He returned to the majors from Triple-A Durham for good in mid-June and surrendered 27 hits in his first 20 2/3 innings, with as many walks as strikeouts (14) over four starts.
Just when it looked like he had turned things around, Snell got hit hard in August, allowing a .390/.493/.593 opponent slash line in his final four starts of the month to go 1-3, 6.08.
“I knew what I was getting into, but the main thing is the hitters are definitely even better than I anticipated,” Snell said. “Just because in Triple-A everyone’s saying they’re the same hitters, just a step away, but you can’t have another hitter in Triple-A that’s Big Papi. You can’t have another hitter in Triple-A that’s Miguel Cabrera. That’s a huge difference.”
That doesn’t mean it’s been all bad. Snell went 2-1, 2.15 over five starts in between those rough stretches with 36 strikeouts against 12 walks. In his first start of September, he allowed two hits and one run over six innings and struck out seven to earn a win over the Blue Jays.
Overall Snell is still averaging more than a strikeout an inning (9.6 SO/9 through Sept. 6), showing the swing-and-miss stuff that made him a top prospect still plays against major-league hitters.
“Obviously it’s always a learning curve for everybody, baseball will kick you down sometimes, but I love his demeanor and he just happens to be 6-4 throwing 95 with nasty stuff,” Rays infielder Brad Miller said. “I think the thing that’s going to make him great is his demeanor and presence on the mound. He wants to be better. He knows when he has a rough night he’ll bounce back and we all know he’ll bounce back.”
Snell isn’t alone in having a first season full of adjustments. The man he barely beat out for Minor League Player of the Year last year, Astros first baseman A.J. Reed, is hitting .168/.274/.280 with Houston after tearing the cover the ball off the ball with Triple-A Fresno during the early part of the year.
All things considered, Snell is hanging in there just fine, and taking the lessons from each start in his debut season into his next one.
“It’s been a big learning curve for me, but I’m learning a lot and I’m excited about it,” Snell said. “Sometimes you got to get through this to get to where you want to go, and I’m doing it.”