Blake Snell went from winning the American League Cy Young Award to being the most inconsistent pitcher in the Tampa Bay Rays starting rotation.
Last season, Snell was one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball. He was blowing his fastball past hitters, had deceiving breaking pitches, and worked his way back into counts. In 31 starts, Snell recorded a 1.89 ERA and an 0.97 WHIP while totaling 221 strikeouts. Opponents hit just .178 against him, and in a league where starting pitchers are often faced with no-decisions, Snell captured 21 wins.
This season he has been a completely different pitcher, and it’s perplexing to watch. In 16 starts, Snell has recorded a 5.01 ERA and 1.34 WHIP, as opponents hit .257 against his offerings. Those figures are a result of the southpaw averaging just under five innings a start and have been amplified over the last four weeks.
In the five starts he has made in June, Snell owns an 11.94 ERA and 2.42 WHIP and has pitched through the fifth inning once. In each of his last three starts, he has been removed from the game in the fourth inning, or earlier, and in a June 19 outing against the division rival New York Yankees, he was removed from the game after getting just one out.
Could it be that Snell is simply in an epic slump and will snap out of it after the MLB All-Star break? Perhaps, but that’s far from a guarantee, and his struggles of late are an enormous red flag for the Rays, considering the way their roster is constructed.
At the end of the day, if the Rays don’t have their ace at the top of his game, they don’t stand a chance of winning the AL pennant.
Manger Kevin Cash and the Rays embody using relievers often and for multiple innings at a time. Outside of Snell, they only have two true starting pitchers, that being Charlie Morton and Yonny Chirinos — though, before suffering a forearm injury, Tyler Glasnow was the team’s third starter. Cash uses a bullpen day two every five games. To his credit, regardless of whether you agree with the strategy, it has worked for the Rays; Cash’s pitching staff went into the Rays’ Friday night matchup with the Texas Rangers first in MLB in ERA (3.23) and fourth in strikeouts (763).
Whether it be Adam Kolarek, Chaz Roe, Jose Alvarado, Oliver Drake, Emilio Pagan, Jalen Beeks, Ryne Stanek, or when healthy Diego Castillo, the Rays have a plethora of versatile pitchers who are capable of providing length and getting big outs. But when you have a staff model as such, there’s no margin for error. You can’t have an inconsistent starting pitcher, or an unreliable reliever. And you especially can’t have your ace severely underperforming.
The Rays have a productive offense. Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, and Brandon Lowe are having splendid seasons at the plate, while Yandy Diaz, Kevin Kiermaier, Ji-Man Choi, Avisail Garcia, Willy Adames, and others push runners across the basepaths and also make a considerable impact. At the same time, the blueprint to a championship, or sustained success for the Rays is their pitching.
Meadows is a rising star, and Pham is having another great season, but the Rays offense isn’t oozing with household names. That’s not to say these aren’t reliable players with upside, but, as a whole, this is a unit that’s highly productive in spurts; they rely on their pitching to keep them in games. Can we say with total conviction that this lineup will produce runs at a high clip in the postseason, or even as the season winds down?
If pitching crashes, the Rays crash.
Snell is the best and most talented pitcher the Rays have sported since David Price. He’s supposed to be the player that takes the hill in a decisive game, and him struggling with command and simply getting outs against some of the best teams in the sport, such as the Yankees and Minnesota Twins, is disturbing.
The Rays are in the thick of a heated playoff race. Within their own division, the AL East, they have to find a way to overcome the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians have been playing better, and the Rangers, who are a surprising 46-36, have the bats to hit five home runs any given night.
Tampa Bay currently has home-field in the AL Wild Card Game, but they’re going to have to: A) hold off the Rangers, Red Sox, and Indians for such seeding and B) beat one of those teams in the one-game playoff if they can’t win their division.
You can argue that it would make sense for the Rays to go with a bullpen day in a win-or-go-home playoff game, but look at what happened to the Oakland Athletics last year. They started Liam Hendriks as an opener in the AL Wild Card Game, Aaron Judge hit a two-run home run off him in the first inning, and the A’s never evened the score, eventually losing to the Yankees, 7-2.
The Rays have to send their best starting pitcher to the mound in a one-game playoff, and that’s supposed to be the tall left-hander. If he gets hit hard, or is in a pickle midway through the game, Cash can pivot to his deep bullpen. With all that said, if Snell continues performing at this alarming rate, Cash may very well have to go with a bullpen day, or Morton because he doesn’t feel comfortable giving Snell the ball in a big game.
The Yankees have Masahiro Tanaka; the Red Sox have Chris Sale; the Cleveland Indians have Trevor Bauer and, when healthy, a potent starting rotation; the Twins have Jose Berrios; the Houston Astros have Justin Verlander.
Snell would’ve been that big-game pitcher for the Rays had they made the postseason in 2018, and if he was that same pitcher this season, the Rays might be in first place in the AL East right now. Instead, they’re 11-16 in June, 46-36 on the season, and skidding off course at a time where the Yankees and Red Sox are playing great baseball.
The Rays are 2-7 against the Yankees, 2-5 against the Twins, and 5-4 against the Red Sox. Snell taking the hill was an essential shoe-in victory for the Rays last season. This season, they’re 7-9 in games he takes the hill.
What’s taking place in St. Petersburg is astonishing; Blake Snell is holding back the Tampa Bay Rays.
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