Breakout MLB Superstar Blake Snell Dominates Like We Haven't Seen Since Pedro

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistNovember 14, 2018

ST PETERSBURG, FL - AUGUST 21:  Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches during a game against the Kansas City Royals at Tropicana Field on August 21, 2018 in St Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Prior to the 2018 MLB season, the names Blake Snell and Pedro Martinez were not synonymous, to put it mildly.

With 2018 in the books, and the 25-year-old ace officially taking home the Cy Young, Snell and Martinez are a lot closer than you might think.

Granted, Snell has a long, long way to go to match Martinez's Hall of Fame resume. But he made great strides in that direction while pitching for a club that often sails under the radar.

Snell posted an American League-leading 1.89 ERA for the Tampa Bay Rays. Since 1990, only one other AL pitching qualifier has finished with a sub-2.00 ERA: Pedro, who posted a 1.74 ERA for the Boston Red Sox in 2000 and a 1.90 ERA in 1997.

Pedro is also the only pitcher to beat Snell's 1.89 AL ERA in the 40 years since the Yankees' Ron Guidry posted a 1.74 ERA way back in 1978.

National League starters have done it slightly more often; the New York Mets' Jacob deGrom (1.70 ERA) did it in 2018. But they don't have to contend with the designated hitter.

It's a rare feat, and it's especially rare in the modern, home run-happy game.

In 2000, Martinez squared off with inflated steroid-era sluggers. The slender righty defied the odds in an age when hulking mashers ruled.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 27:  Former Boston Red Sox player Pedro Martinez looks on from the dugout before a game against the Atlanta Braves at Fenway Park on May 27, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Today, performance-enhancing drugs have been largely excised from the game, but home runs are flying at an all-time pace. MLB hitters swatted 5,585 home runs in 2018. That was down from the record 6,105 they hit in 2017 and the 5,610 they hit in 2016. Still, it compares closely to the 5,693 launched in 2000, when Pedro posted his last sub-2.00 ERA.

Drilling down deeper, the New York Yankees set an all-time record for home runs by a team in 2018 with 267. The Yankees play in the same division as the Rays. Tip your cap to Snell.

Was this a one-year blip based on statistical noise, or does Snell warrant the Martinez comp? Let's examine.

The 52nd overall pick by the Rays in the 2011 draft, Snell debuted with Tampa Bay in 2016. That year, he posted a 3.54 ERA in 19 starts. In 2017, he put up a 4.04 ERA in 24 starts.

Then, suddenly, he catapulted into the AL's elite. He's a finalist for the Cy Young Award (which MLB will hand out Wednesday).

Is his dominance sustainable?

If you want to toss a wet blanket on the subject, Snell's 2.94 FIP suggests his Pedro-esque ERA was boosted by good luck. That said, he shaved his ERA from 2.27 before the All-Star break to 1.17 after it, and his opponents' batting average went from .189 to .155. His results improved as the season wore on, which is always a good sign.

ST PETERSBURG, FL - SEPTEMBER 28: Blake Snell #4 of the Tampa Bay Rays gets ready to accept a Tampa General Hospital Player of the Year award prior to a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on September 28, 2018 at Tropicana Field in St Petersburg, Florida.
Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Snell's average fastball clocked in at 96.5 mph in 2018 compared to 94.7 in 2017 and 94.5 in 2016. He also leaned more heavily on his breaking ball and off-speed offerings, which he threw 48.5 percent of the time compared to 44.9 percent in 2017 and 42.8 percent in 2016.

All that speaks to a 25-year-old who is entering his prime and coming into his own. He's learning how to pitch as opposed to throw, to lean on the cliche.

Want some more Pedro parallels? In 2000, Martinez surrendered the fewest hits per nine innings with 5.3. Last season, Snell paced the game in the same category with 5.6.

In 1997, when Pedro was in his age-25 season, he posted a 219 ERA+ and won his first Cy Young. In Snell's age-25 season in 2018, his ERA+ in his first Cy Young year was....drumroll please...219.

Oh, and then there's this indefensible oddity unearthed by Pitcher List's Alex Fast:

Snell could regress. History suggests a second straight sub-2.00 ERA campaign is improbable. His trajectory, on the other hand, is that of a hurler on the fast track toward stardom.

We've repeatedly conjured the Martinez comp. Rays manager Kevin Cash had another one.

"You look at a guy like Corey Kluber," Cash told reporters when asked about Snell. "That mindset really drives him, motivates him and allows him to put himself in a position every fifth day to go out there and compete at the highest level."

Klubot meets Pedro? Sounds like a force to be reckoned with.

Now, the big question: Given the team's small-market status, might Tampa Bay trade Snell for a package of prospects? Here's how Rays general manager Erik Neander summed up Snell's trade status, per Fox Sports' Jon Morosi: "Nonexistent, because of how committed to him we are."

Snell may hit a bump in the road. The league might figure him out and force him to adjust. The stats paint a pitcher on the rise, however, and a name to follow closely.

Conjuring Pedro isn't beyond reason. Greater accomplishments may be in the offing. Stay tuned.

       

All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

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