Having trouble with the idea of the league leader in walks winning the NL Cy Young Award? Can’t stomach the idea of a Cy Young winner who has never pitched eight innings in a major league game? Hard to believe the Cy could go to someone who ranks 10th in innings and WHIP in his league?
Get used to it. Padres lefthander Blake Snell represents the state of the art of pitching. And nobody has been better in the National League.
The main idea of pitching is not to generate fancy rate stats or, as happened a generation ago, to “eat up innings.” It is to disrupt and diminish hitting as much as possible, especially slugging. Even with his 97 walks, Snell has been the best at that task.
He is an outlier. Nobody has ever won an ERA title while walking batters at a clip of five per nine innings—until Snell this year. And nobody in the league is within a half a run of his 2.33 ERA.
Snell also is an extreme example of how modern front offices changed the paradigm of starting pitching. They want pitchers who miss bats while burning up so much energy—there is no more pacing oneself—that they need to secure only about 18 outs on a good night.
There are only 47 qualified pitchers in MLB this season. Among them Snell is the toughest pitcher to hit (.181) and the toughest pitcher to slug against (.238). That’s why the walks do little harm to his Cy case.
“I told him early in the season, ‘Don’t worry about walking hitters. Worry about run prevention,’” says agent Scott Boras, who also represents the likely American League Cy Young Award winner, Gerrit Cole. “‘When walking leads to runs, then worry. You just keep your flow.’
“The way he pitches is wearing on hitters. The uncertainty is the magic. As a hitter, everything is about tech these days. It’s about defining the predictable. With that 12–6 curveball and a high-velocity fastball that are difficult to tell whether it’s a strike or ball, he is unpredictable. That’s when as a hitter, you are living in the absolute misery of the unknown.”
I’ve written about how today’s game, with fewer fastballs than ever, has become a game that pivots on swing decisions. All good hitters can hit velocity. Don’t try to hit breaking pitches and offspeed pitches that dart out of the zone—the strike-ball bait every pitcher uses as a lure. But when those pitches float into the zone—the strike-strike mistakes—you must hammer them.
No pitcher in baseball is better than Snell at confusing the swing decision telemetry of hitters. He is in the strike zone just 39.5% of the time, a career worst. But the way his four pitches leave the zone tempts hitters. Because Snell is wild around the zone and not in it, and because he can work around walks with strikeouts and by defusing slug, his heavy strike-ball repertoire is a feature, not a bug.
Snell likely will be one of the most unusual Cy Young winners in the award’s history. Let us go a full nine as we count the ways:
1. He started 1–6 with a 5.40 ERA through nine starts.
In 22 starts since then, Snell is 13–3 with a 1.26 ERA while allowing just six home runs. What happened? He has been better when it comes to throwing strikes but still below average (59% in his past 22 starts, up from 56% in his first nine). The key has been throwing fewer fastballs and leaning more into his curveball, the best pitch in baseball.
First 9 starts
2. Yes, the Snell curve is the best pitch in baseball.
Batters are hitting .076 against his curve, the lowest against any one pitch any pitcher has thrown at least 500 times.
More ridiculous ways to marvel at the Snell Skyfall curve:
- He has thrown 599 curveballs. Batters have tried to hit it 260 times. They have 12 hits.
- The two-plane shape of it is like nothing else. He has the fourth highest release point on a curveball (behind only Justin Verlander, Jordan Montgomery and Miles Mikolas) and gets the second most horizontal movement on it (behind only Clarke Schmidt, as compared to the average curveball).
- He has thrown the curve 166 times with a runner in scoring position and allowed only two hits in 44 at-bats on them (.045).
- Frankly, hitters would be better off if they never swung at Snell’s curve. It winds up out of the strike zone 74% of the time.
But because hitters must start early to be able to hit his fastball (95.5 mph), because the curve breaks so much and because Snell loves throwing it with two strikes, when anxiety creeps into a hitter’s psyche, Snell keeps getting chase swings on the pitch.
When hitters swing at the Snell curve when it’s out of the zone, they are 2-for-101 (.020).
3. Snell is historically dominant against right-handed hitters.
General managers love “platoon advantage.” Snell destroys all meaning in that thinking. Go ahead and pack your lineup against him with right-handed hitters. He is the best lefthander in history at dominating right-handed hitters:
Blake Snell, Padres
Tommy Byrne, Yankees
Sandy Koufax, Dodgers
Vida Blue, A’s
4. Snell is a hitter’s and a catcher’s nightmare.
His curveball, slider and changeup dive so hard that nobody in baseball throws more pitches in the dirt.
|Pitcher||Pitches in Dirt|
Blake Snell, Padres
Dylan Cease, White Sox
Shane Bieber, Guardians
Framber Valdez, Astros
5. Few pitchers have ever been this good and this wild.
Only four pitchers have ever averaged five walks and 10 strikeouts per nine innings in a qualified season: Nolan Ryan (1972, 1976, 1977 and 1978), Randy Johnson (1991 and 1992), Sandy Koufax (1960) and Snell (2023). How about that company when it comes to outliers?
Until Snell, no one has ever led the league in ERA while walking five per nine innings:
|Pitcher||Year||ERA (*Leads league in ERA)|
Nolan Ryan, Angels
Blake Snell, Padres
Hal Newhouser, Tigers
6. Nobody runs up full counts more than Snell—and it’s not even close.
Blake Snell, Padres
Lance Lynn, Dodgers
Dean Kremer, Orioles
Kodai Senga, Mets
Zack Wheeler, Phillies
That’s the most plate appearances with a full count since Wade Miley in 2017 (166). But hitting against Snell doesn’t get any easier in full counts, when he will throw any of his four pitches. Batters are hitting .090 against Snell in full counts, the lowest since such records began in 1988 for pitchers with at least 150 plate appearances ending at 3-and-2.
7. Just get him three runs.
Snell is 1–9 when the Padres score two runs or less. With three runs or more, he is 13–0.
8. He has not thrown more than 113 pitches or seven innings this year.
This is what he’s been trained to do. Snell has pitched 306 professional games. He has thrown more than 117 pitches once. He has completed the eighth inning once—and that was for the 2017 Durham Bulls.
Through 190 major league games, Snell appears to be tracking the career of another Padres ace, Jake Peavy.
But when you consider the volume of their work, it’s not close:
9. Of the 97 batters Snell has walked, only two scored on a home run.
Managers hate walks for good reasons. They are free bases for the opponent. They often are rally-starters. But because Snell is so hard to hit, his walks, frequent as they are, do less harm.
“O.K., he walks more batters, but why is that not relevant for him?” Boras says. “Because his ERA is first in the league. Why? They don’t hit him. They don’t hit him for power. They don’t hit it out of the ballpark.
“Harvey Dorfman taught me a long time ago about how you talk to players. You have to remember it’s about what they hear. So, while others early in the season may have been saying, ‘You’re walking too many,’ my point was ‘You’ve got to understand the steering wheel has nothing to do with the engine. Your engine is great. We’re not concerned. We just have to make sure our steering wheel is more directed. The engine is beautiful.’
“I also asked him, ‘Do you go out there with intentions that are focused on pitch-by-pitch or are you focused on results?’ I think over these last four months, Blake has mastered the pitch-by-pitch approach.”
There hasn’t been a season quite like the one Snell is having. It is best measured not by his walk rate or strike percentage, but by what he creates for hitters: the absolute misery of the unknown.