AL Midseason Debuts: Prospects Looking to Make an Impact – #1 Blake Snell

With the 2016 season underway, each team looks to compete immediately with the pickups they made in the offseason. But as we saw around the MLB in the 2015, the midseason callups can have as big of an impact as the players obtained in free agency. This series will detail the 5 prospects in the AL looking to make the biggest impact on their respective teams this season.

For the purposes of this series, we will set a few baseline criteria:

  1. The prospect cannot have any previous Major League experience prior to the 2016 season.
  2. The prospect must already be reasonably close to the MLB.
  3. The prospect must play a position of need for his big-league squad, and this need cannot be due to injury.

Be sure to check out the impact cases for the prospects previously covered:

#5 – Sean Manaea, OAK, LHP

#4 – Tim Anderson, CHW, SS

#3 – José Berríos, MIN, RHP

#2 – A.J. Reed, HOU, 1B

And for the previous series detailing the NL version of this list, check out the posts here.

1. Blake Snell, TBR, LHP

Appearing at the top of the AL Midseason Prospect List, and most likely to make an impact for his team, is Rays left hander Blake Snell, MLB’s #12 overall prospect. Having made his major league debut in a lone spot start in April, Snell returned to AAA Durham due to Super Two concerns. From there, Snell has produced at a level that should have Tampa Bay fans eagerly anticipating his return to the majors. Once he makes this return, it could be the push Tampa needs to reach contender status this season.

Drafted with the 52nd overall pick in the 2011 Draft as a high school senior, even then Snell was known for his impressive fastball. Averaging between 92-94 mph with the ability to crank it up to 96, the most imposing thing about the pitch is its late movement, which helps Snell fool hitters. The fooling has been to the tune of an astonishing 32.5 K% in a little over 90 IP between 2015 and 2016 at the AAA level. To go with the deceptive fastball, Snell mixes in a plus slider, and an above average changeup and curve. What is most notable about this pitch mix is the velocity separation it gets from the fastball; the slider averages in the low 80s, the changeup at a similar speed, and the curve in the low 70s. Having three different tiers of velocity to draw on plays a huge part in Snell’s high strikeout rate, and this quality will only improve as he learns how to optimally mix the pitches in time.

Another thing the Rays hope Snell will improve in time is his control. While Snell fools hitters, he also has a tendency to walk them. With a long track record of high walk totals, Snell has posted a 9.5 BB% in those same 90.2 IP at AAA. Frustratingly, more of the walks have come in 2016, although this does not seem to be due to a decline in control, but rather a return to normalcy.

Currently, a lack of control seems to be the main gripe against Snell, as all other stats and peripherals look incredible. Fitting the groundball profile, Snell keeps pitches low and combining this with his high strikeout rate allowed him to post a 2.12 FIP in 44.1 IP last year at AAA. This year, that number has regressed to 3.08 in 46.1 IP, but there is one very obvious abnormality with the figure.

In 2015, Snell limited hitters to a measly .185 batting average on a .276 BABIP. While the BABIP figure is lower than average, suggesting he may have been lucky, it is in line with what we would expect from a high strikeout pitcher who is inducing weak contact. In 2016, Snell has kept hitters to a still paltry .236 batting average, but their BABIP has skyrocketed to .346, well above the average, and well above Snell’s career norms. Because it does not seem that there are any underlying changes to Snell’s mechanics or approach, it is not wild conjecture to state that batters are getting lucky when they do manage to put the ball in play. With this in mind, we would expect Snell’s FIP to go even lower over enough starts at AAA, although it seems that he will only get a few more opportunities at the level.

The Rays have been the benefactor of an extreme schedule that has afforded them many days off, essentially removing the need for a fifth starter the first quarter of the season. However, this scheduling oddity has passed, and now their rotation will have to return to a more fixed five person setup. So far the Rays have relied on Chris Archer, Drew SmylyJake Odorizzi, and Matt Moore as their main starters, with Matt Andriese and Snell earning a few of the stray starts. The results of each have been a mixed bag to say the least.

Archer, who was expected to enter the season as the Rays’ ace, has struggled with his command, leading to a 4.62 ERA. This in part has led to a much higher than normal home run rate (21.8 HR/FB%), and his xFIP accounts this accordingly at 3.59. This doesn’t change the fact that he is still walking over 10% of batters, but his 26.8 K% shows that the stuff is still there, and will hopefully return to its upper-echelon status soon enough.

Smyly has perhaps posted the most impressive stats of the four. His ERA sits at 3.92, while striking out 27.1% of batters and walking only 6.1%. He has kept hitters to a very low .216 batting average, and his xFIP of 3.82 is the only one of the four starters that even remotely resembles their ERA. However, Smyly has also posted a .255 BABIP and even though a lower figure is expected for a flyball pitcher, it seems unsustainable based on his previous results. If Smyly’s luck regresses to a more normal figure, he may see a decrease in his performance due to higher run totals and shorter starts.

Odorizzi has posted average strikeout and walk rates on his way to a 3.46 ERA and 4.32 xFIP. With a six-pitch arsenal and completely acceptable results that he seems likely to maintain, Odorizzi’s job is probably safe from the prospect of a Snell return to the majors and doesn’t warrant much discussion.

Moore (along with Archer) has posted some of the more disappointing results of the rotation, with an ERA of 5.47. While he has posted average strikeout and walk rates (21.9% and 7.1%, respectively), Moore has allowed a lot of home runs (16.7 HR/FB%) which has forced his manager Kevin Cash to pull him early, averaging only 5.2 IP per start. While his xFIP of 3.90 suggests that he should regress to a more acceptable level, he also has a flyball tendency meaning that he may not benefit to its full effect. Moore posted a similarly disappointing 2015 with a high xFIP and even higher ERA, although his K% and BB% have recovered. His recent history of underperforming and his currently subpar results may put his spot in the rotation in danger of a Snell promotion.

Lastly, Snell will compete with current spot starter Andriese once the Super Two deadline passes. Andriese has posted impressive results in 4 starts so far, even pitching a two-hit shutout back on May 14. With this in mind, the highest groundball rate of the staff (48.1%), and a shiny 2.63 ERA, its easy to think that there may not be much of a competition between him and Snell. However, Andriese has been the recipient of copious amounts of luck in different forms in 27.1 IP so far. First, Andriese has struck out merely 16.2% of the batters he has faced. While he has great control and routinely walks merely 5% of batters, a high contact ratio like Andriese’s can be risky, especially when his fastball averages in the low 90s. Combine this with the fact that his BABIP is .225, with a history around the average, and it seems much more apparent that he is getting lucky with his batted ball distribution, and his 3.09 FIP starts to look more reasonable.

The icing on the regression cake, however, is his astronomically low 3.4 HR/FB%. This rate is so low that it cannot possibly be sustained. It is, in fact, lower than any IP-qualifed season of a starter since 2002, when such rates started being tracked. While Andriese has the pedigree of an above-average propsect, there’s nothing to suggest that he should be getting this lucky. It’s possible that the Rays will ride the hot-hand and go with Andriese, and either delay Snell’s promotion or demote Moore instead, but luck will eventually catch up with him. For this reason, it seems that Andriese is most at risk to lose starts to the prospect of a Blake Snell promotion.

Walk-Off Hit: Blake Snell 2016 Impact Outlook

The Tampa Bay Rays currently sit in last place of the AL East, after getting out to a 21-25 start as of May 27. However, they sit only 7 games back of the 1st place Red Sox and 5 games back of the second wild-card spot. The Rays possess a league-average offense and a top 5 defense, but a slightly below average pitching staff. While their performance suggests that they are the 6th best team in the AL, their results have not caught up with the performance. Part of this can be contributed to the underperforming pitching staff, particularly the starters.

Blake Snell may be the solution to the Rays starting pitching woes. In a tryout spot-start on April 23 he impressed in 5 IP, allowing only 2 hits and 1 run while striking out 6 batters. His minor league pedigree and top prospect status are based on his deceptive fastball and above-average four pitch arsenal. At this point the only things holding Snell back are the Super Two deadline and a walk rate that he will continue to work on. The Rays were able to get away with a 4 man rotation for the first quarter of the season, but as June nears they will require reinforcements if they hope to compete into the fall. Once Blake Snell is promoted, he can help them compete by fortifying the rotation with his high strikeout rate thanks to his late moving fastball. In a year where the Yankees and the Blue Jays have underperformed, look for the Rays to close the gap between them and the Red Sox as their starting pitching positively regresses to their true talent levels, joined by the super prospect Snell.

AL Midseason Prospects Recap:

In addition to players that have already debuted, like Byron BuxtonJoey Gallo, Nomar MazaraTyler NaquinAaron JudgeMax Kepler, the AL has a lot of talent in the minors pipeline scheduled to arrive the next few years. This includes Yoan MoncadaLewis BrinsonRafael Devers, Franklin BarretoBradley Zimmer, Clint Frazier, and Carson Fulmer among others. Additionally, there a few prospects that do not play positions of need, and were thus disqualified from this list, like Alex Bregman.

Ultimately, four of the five players featured in this series are prospects for major-league teams currently dwelling at the bottom of their divisions. But they are also members of systems that are loaded with prospects (the Twins and Astros in particular) that will hopefully reverse the standings as soon as next year. The White Sox, Astros, and Rays are all still possible serious contenders this year, and the prospects mentioned in this series play a huge part in that.

A big feature in this series was the looming Super Two deadline, which has likely contributed to Tim AndersonA.J. Reed and Blake Snell remaining in the minors as long as they have. As mentioned in the comments on the A.J. Reed post, this is a term of the collective bargaining agreement that will have to be negotiated this offseason. What started as a way to compensate players has turned into a system that owners and GMs abuse to keep players cheaper and fans inadvertently deprived of entertainment. While possible solutions are still fuzzy, look for a new system to be arranged.

What do you think? Was Blake Snell’s spot start indicative of how he’ll play in the majors? Do you think he will ultimately solve his walk problem? What current Rays pitcher is most likely to be removed from the rotation to make place for him? What other prospects do you think belong on this list, or should the order change? Who do you think will appear on the 2017 version of this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter @SaberBallBlog. Don’t forget to subscribe to SaberBallBlog by clicking the green “Follow” button in the menu, and follow on Twitter for all of the latest updates on the MLB!

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