Expanded Roster | Blake Snell’s Rise Began when the Rays Demoted Him
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Blake Snell’s Rise Began when the Rays Demoted Him

By Gary Phillips

It’s rare that a major leaguer is “excited” to get sent down, but that’s exactly how Blake Snell described his May 2017 demotion.

The Rays southpaw was coming off a notable rookie season, but Snell’s sophomore campaign began with a concerning eight-start stretch. With his command out of whack, his mind elsewhere and his ERA trending toward 5.00, Tampa Bay determined some minor league maintenance was required.

“I wasn’t mad. I knew I needed to get demoted. I knew I wasn’t the best me I could be,” Snell said recently. “So, when it happened, I wasn’t frustrated or anything. I was frustrated that I let it happen, but not with the decision. I knew that had to happen. I knew it had to take place. I was excited because I knew I was going to be able to clean things up.”

Snell was up against a variety of “self-inflicted” hindrances. Physically, his mechanics were off. Mentally, so was his head. The 25-year-old said he was going through personal and relationship problems at the time (he preferred not to elaborate). As a result, he wasn’t entirely focused on his craft.

The demotion changed that in a hurry.

At the recommendation of former Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, Snell literally straightened himself out. He shifted his foot on the rubber from the third base side to the middle. Working with then-Triple-A pitching coach turned Hickey’s replacement, Kyle Snyder, Snell also tweaked his delivery so that he was no longer cross-firing his pitches. The result was better alignment with the strike zone and the return of his mid-90s heater.

Snell also worked on his mental approach to the game; blocking out distractions, improving his preparation between starts, paying attention to detail, locking in pitch to pitch. The Rays immediately noticed a drastic difference when Snell rejoined the team in late June.

He pitched to the tune of a 3.71 ERA over his final 16 outings, and then a 2.84 mark over his last 10.

“He didn’t pout. He was really frustrated with himself and his performance, but there were some mechanical adjustments that needed to be made – he made those – and there were some mental adjustments that needed to be made,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “From that time he got called back up, we’ve kind of seen a different person.”

Snell took his new mindset with him into the offseason and returned ready to establish himself among the game’s best young pitchers. With a 21-5 record, 1.90 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 10.84 K/9 over a career-high 175.2 innings, the (initially snubbed) All-Star has not only accomplished that, but he’s also thrown his name into the Cy Young conversation with force. Both physically and mentally, Snell is nothing like the pitcher that got demoted last season.

“I’ve seen him become more sure and show that with his demeanor, with his approach, with his way of going about this, this Snellzilla that we got,” Sergio Romo said with a laugh. “He’s grown up a little bit, but really, the main thing is he seems that much more sure of himself.”

“You can tell,” battery mate Jesús Sucre added. “You can see his face and then you’ll be like, ‘He’s on it today.’”
Now, Snell is the leader of the most unconventional rotation in baseball history.

It’s been an odd, albeit successful, year for the Rays’ pitching staff. Because of openers and trades, however, Tampa Bay’s rotation hasn’t exactly been a model of consistency. Snell, aside from a brief DL stint, has been the lone exception.

With the Rays’ rotation never complete and the bullpen always in use, there’s added pressure to perform when it’s his turn on the hill.

“It makes it more personal for me to be a standout starter,” Snell said of the Rays’ opener strategy. “I want people to know when I pitch that I’m going to go deep into the game.”

Unlike other Rays starters, the coaching staff told him that he wouldn’t have to ever worry about following an opener back in spring training. That was music to Snell’s ears.

“There ain’t gonna be an opener. No, no shot,” he said. “I would not agree with it. I’m a starter. I’m gonna start my game and the goal is to finish my games. I haven’t done that, but that’s what I’m working for.”

One thing Snell is not working for is the limelight.

Rather mellow when not on the mound, he doesn’t concern himself with titles like ace or face of the franchise, positions that have been vacated by Evan Longoria and Chris Archer in the past year.

The Rays don’t have much star power outside of Snell, though. An organization that’s always struggled with attendance could use an individual like him to get behind every fifth day, especially when fans often get little notice as to who will start the games in between. He’s aware of this – wouldn’t mind it, even – but he’s not seeking it out, either.

“It’s cool if people wanna gravitate toward me,” Snell said, mentioning how fans in Pittsburgh and his hometown Seattle used to flock to see Andrew McCutchen and Felix Hernandez, respectively. “That’s cool, cheer me on, I appreciate all that. But I’m not gonna look at it as I’m the face.”

Be that as it may, Snell won’t leave any room for doubt if he keeps pitching like this going forward.