Right off the top, I’ll acknowledge the term ’rebound candidate’ is a bit strong to describe Blake Snell. Even looking only at bottom line results, Snell’s 2019 season was serviceable. He logged a 4.29 ERA in 107 innings over 23 starts; Baseball Reference, which emphasizes run prevention in its WAR calculation, pegged Snell at a decent 1.4 wins above replacement.
There’s no question, though, it marked a step back from his otherworldly 2018 results. That year, he tossed 180.2 innings while allowing fewer than two earned runs per nine. That league-best run prevention translated to 7.1 bWAR. Looking solely at the results, it’d be easy to conclude Snell took a massive step back last season.
Every team now looks beyond a pitcher’s mere run prevention (or win-loss record, where Snell also regressed dramatically). Looking deeper, the southpaw looked a lot like his 2018 self last year. His average fastball velocity dropped about half a mile per hour, but he still sat 95.89 MPH, per Brooks Baseball. No other left-handed starter threw harder. His spin rates across the board remained consistent 2018 to 2019, as did his arm slot. On the whole, Snell was working with the same raw stuff that enabled his 2018 dominance.
Admittedly, retaining his stuff from the year prior doesn’t automatically mean he was as effective. But on a micro level, Snell looked every bit as dominant. His 2019 strikeout rate (33.3%) was up nearly two percentage points from the year before (31.6%). His walk rate (9.1%) in each year was identical. Most importantly, Snell’s 17.7% swinging strike rate ranked #1 among all MLB starters (minimum 60 innings). The names just behind him are a who’s who of the game’s top arms: Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Luis Castillo, Jacob deGrom.
Nor was this a case of a pitcher with dominant strike zone metrics who got bombed when hitters did make contact. Snell’s 88 MPH average exit velocity and 32% hard contact rate allowed were league average, generally the same level of contact quality he surrendered in 2018. Snell’s opponents’ BABIP rose over .100 points between 2018-19, but there’s nothing to suggest he got any more hittable. (He did surrender a few more line drives last season, but large changes in line drive rate don’t tend to stick year to year). It just seems that more batted balls dropped in; if even a league average amount of those batted balls find gloves moving forward, he should again be one of the league’s toughest pitchers to score against.
If a 2020 season is ultimately played, Snell looks more than capable of contending for another Cy Young. He had a precautionary cortisone shot in his throwing elbow in February, but at last check he was feeling ’fine.’ Assuming the layoff allows him to reemerge at full health, Snell looks on track to reclaim his spot as one of the league’s best pitchers.