TORONTO – As exhilarating and gratifying and euphoric as it is, life as a first-time September call-up can also be fraught with anxiety.
Guys like Nick Ciuffo, one of the Tampa Bay Rays’ more unheralded promotees, have roughly a bajillion things to obsess over after getting that long-awaited call: “Am I hustling enough? Am I hitting enough? Am I talking too much? Do the guys like me? Does this mean I’ll make team next year? Do I even belong here?”
Catching Blake Snell, though? That’s about as stress-free as it gets.
“When you have a guy like Snell on the mound – guys who have electric stuff like that – you don’t really have too much anxiety going into the game,” Ciuffo told theScore. “Because, really, you can call whatever and it’ll work.”
And, in Ciuffo’s first – and, thus far, only – time catching Snell, it did.
As is increasingly his wont, Snell was masterful with the 23-year-old rookie behind the plate against the Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 7. The lanky left-hander struck out nine without issuing a walk over 5 1/3 innings at Tropicana Field, where his ERA actually climbed to 2.06 thanks to a pair of earned runs allowed. The Rays won 14-2. And Ciuffo, for his part, enjoyed the finest offensive showing of his nascent big-league career, going 2-for-2 with a walk while also smacking his first career homer.
That outing helped Snell bolster his case for the American League Cy Young Award – a bid the 25-year-old has only strengthened of late. In three starts since, Snell has allowed one run. Total. His cumulative ERA, heading into the final week of the regular season, sits at a microscopic 1.90 over 175 2/3 innings.
Nobody in Tampa Bay’s lineup stresses, in other words, when Snell pitches.
“When you have a pitcher that has ace-type stuff, and the knowledge behind it – how to use it – you got a winning combination,” Ciuffo said. “He’s going to do great things for a long time. I’m just excited that I got to be around a little bit to see it.”
By his own admission, Snell has “always had good stuff.” Most first-rounders do. That primo stuff allowed him to ascend relatively quickly through the minor leagues, even as his command lagged behind. “Long way to go,” wrote Baseball Prospectus’ Jason Parks ahead of the 2014 campaign, “but this kid has a lot of potential.”
Just over two years later, Snell, at 23, was pitching in the big leagues. He made a one-off debut in April and then joined the rotation for good in June. All told, he acquitted himself well in that abbreviated first season, crafting a 3.54 ERA (113 ERA+) across 19 starts while posting the third-highest strikeout rate (24.4 percent) among rookie starters (min. 80 IP). He also issued a whopping 51 walks in 89 innings, as his longstanding control woes contributed to a bloated 1.62 WHIP.
“I do remember that the hitting coaches always said he had really good stuff,” recalled Rays first baseman C.J. Cron, who faced Snell in 2016 as a member of the Los Angeles Angels. “He was young. I think it was his first year in the big leagues. They said his stuff’s electric, he just needs to find a bit of pitchability – which, obviously, he’s found now.”
Finding it – as it so often does – required a demotion. After issuing 25 free passes with a resultant 4.71 ERA through eight starts in 2017, Snell was optioned down to Durham. There, he worked closely with Bulls pitching coach Kyle Snyder – who’s since taken over the same job with the Rays – on refining not only his command, but his approach.
Upon rejoining the Rays in late June, about six weeks later, the changes were manifest. Over his final 16 starts of 2017, Snell trimmed his walk rate down by nearly two batters per nine innings, which made the resilient lefty one of the top pitchers in the majors down stretch. He authored a 2.84 ERA and 3.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio while holding opponents to a .197 average across his last 10 outings.
“Probably the biggest adjustment is in between his ears,” Rays manager Cash said. “The way he’s handled adversity, the way he recognized that he had to go down to the minor leagues last year and not sulk but get better – I give him a ton of credit for doing that.”
And Snell has only gotten better since.
Thanks to improved command and a significant uptick in velocity that he presaged late last year, Snell has cemented himself as one of the game’s preeminent starters, wielding a four-seamer that sits at 96 miles per hour along with three offspeed pitches – a changeup, slider, and curve – that he can now consistently throw for strikes.
“To have both of those increase is very exciting,” said Snell, who added that the biggest changes have been his mentality and confidence. “And with that, being able to throw the ball in the zone when I want, with every pitch.”
Added Cash: “The delivery adjustments that he’s made has helped the power get back to his fastball, and when he got the fastball back, then everything else kind of showed up and followed behind that.”
With so many weapons at his disposal, it’s no surprise that Snell ranks in the top ten among qualified starters in virtually all meaningful (and even some less meaningful) statistical categories:
*Minimum 500 plate appearances
**Not meaningful in a predictive sense, but still cool
Snell, moreover, has allowed more than two runs in just four of his 30 outings thus far. And barring a catastrophic final start, he’ll become just the third left-hander in history with at least 20 wins and an ERA+ – a park-adjusted metric in which 100 represents a league-average ERA – of 200 or better, joining Ron Guidry and Lefty Grove.
“Definitely the consistency,” Cron said when asked what’s impressed him the most about Snell. “That’s kind of the thing about baseball. It’s really hard to be consistent over seven months worth of playing, including spring training. He’s gone out there every day and done his thing. He’s been great.
“The numbers speak for themselves. It’s going to probably go down as one of the best starting-pitching years in Rays history.”
In truth, Snell’s 2018 may well go down as the greatest year ever by a Rays pitcher, seeing as he’s set the single-season franchise record in ERA, WHIP, and wins.
And in Tampa Bay’s 21-season history, the only other pitcher who even approximated the success Snell has enjoyed this year was David Price, his spiritual predecessor, who took home the AL Cy Young six years ago after fashioning a 2.56 ERA (150 ERA+) over 211 innings.
That said, Snell’s competition for the 2018 award is pretty steep. Justin Verlander, who earned his first Cy Young the year before Price got his, has a compelling case for a second. Gerrit Cole is a strong candidate. So too are Trevor Bauer and Chris Sale. And, historically, the voting members of the BBWAA have regarded 200 innings as a prerequisite for AL pitchers.
“It’d be cool,” Snell said. “That’s definitely something that I’ve always wanted to win, so we’ll see how it all plays out.”
Even if he doesn’t get it this year, Snell has carved out his place in Rays history and positioned himself, particularly in the wake of the Chris Archer trade, as the club’s ace of the present and future. Still a year away from his first season of arbitration-eligibility, Snell is poised to anchor the Rays’ rotation for the foreseeable future, no matter how effective their opener strategy proves. Rest assured, this won’t be his last opportunity to win a Cy Young.
That, certainly, nobody should stress about.
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore’s senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.