When pitchers and catchers report for duty later this week to begin Major League Baseball’s new year, one notable hurler will be stuck at home. Star left-hander Blake Snell remains without a team despite putting forth a good enough showing last season to earn his second career Cy Young Award. Snell’s name has seldom appeared in fresh rumors as of late, making it unclear if any resolution is near or if he might have to wait until closer to Opening Day to sign a contract.
Entering the offseason, it was fair to think that some teams would approach Snell with a sense of trepidation. We here at CBS Sports ranked him as the sixth best free agent and the second best pitcher, behind right-hander Aaron Nola, who quickly rejoined the Philadelphia Phillies in November on a seven-year pact worth $172 million. At the time, we wrote of Snell that “you can’t blame anyone who develops the collywobbles when they think about the left-tail possibilities of his skill set.”
Now, three months later, we’ve reached a different conclusion: teams are undervaluing Snell. Allow us to make our case using three convenient subheadings.
1. Snell is the new model
Drill Snell’s game down into a few bullet points and you’ll get something like this:
- Strikeout artist
- Workload concerns
That’s a fair description of Snell. It’s also a fair description of most of the game’s top pitching prospects at the minor-league and amateur levels. Whether it’s Kyle Harrison (Giants), Hurston Waldrep (Braves), or Jacob Misiorowski (Brewers), teams are increasingly willing to live with command and workload warts if that profile comes with big-time swing-and-miss stuff. Heck, the Brewers doubled down, in a sense, by acquiring lefty DL Hall as part of the Corbin Burnes trade. Hall would be doing well — quite well, really — if he developed into the Coke Zero version of Snell.
Don’t just take our word for it. Veteran ball scribe Joe Sheehan recently observed the following about the pitchers who made Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 list:
Prospectus just published its Top 101 Prospects list, one that included 27 starting pitchers. Six of those were drafted in 2023, and another five were injured for all or most of the ’23 season. That leaves 16. Those 16 pitchers made 319 starts. In just 78 of them, 24%, did they pitch into the sixth inning. Just five of them ever threw 100 pitches in at least one start. Just seven, in a group of the best pitching prospects in baseball, threw even 100 innings.
You can argue that teams value the unfinished versions of Snell more because they’re holding out hope that they can improve their weaknesses. It’s a fair point. However, we think that in baseball (and too often with life), the most likely answer comes down to money. Everyone wants a Snell of their own; they just don’t want to pay for it.
2. No bad seasons
One of the purported reasons teams would hesitate to pay Snell involves those aforementioned possible left-tail outcomes. We get it — we wrote as much in November. He’s a player with an extreme profile who is on the shady side of 30. That means every unflattering what-if scenario can and will be used against him until he defies them. What if his control slips a little more — he just walked five batters per nine, his most since his rookie year, or what if his stuff loses a little oomph or bite, and he becomes more hittable? Then where does that leave him?
There are similarities to those pitchers — all lefties with good stuff and some with occasional wildness — but one notable difference is that Snell finds a way to make it work each year. He’s thrown at least 50 seasons each year since 2016 and posted an ERA+ beneath 100 once. That came in 2021 when he finished at 92. Mind you, a league-average ERA+ for starting pitchers tends to sit around 93.
For perspective, Snell has a career 127 ERA+. Prior to signing their own lucrative deals, Ray and Rodón had two apiece, and Corbin had one at or above that mark. Snell has had three of those seasons himself. That doesn’t mean Snell is safe from risk, mind you. The truth is that no player — and particularly no pitcher — is free from it. Sometimes, the center falls apart, and there’s no advance warning. Sometimes it doesn’t. When it comes right down to it, every human being has a six-foot margin of error.
And yes, we know teams pride themselves on what a player will do, not what they have done. That’s a fine philosophy in theory, but it’s one that — when adhered to on a dogmatic basis — means avoiding some of the best players in the game in the name of being unnecessarily cost efficient. Is the goal to win games or to look smart? Because nothing — nothing — makes a team look smarter than winning games.
3. Injury risk overstated?
We’ll end with the Great Unknown: player health.
There’s a question mark in that subheading because we’re not going to pretend that we have insight into Snell’s medicals. You’re oftentimes better served assuming that every pitcher — even the workhorses who never miss a start — will get hurt at some point.
With that established, we do feel obligated to note that Snell has been healthier than his innings totals indicate. Since 2020, he’s made four trips to the injured list: Twice for illnesses and twice for abductor groin strains. He hasn’t required an absence because of arm woes since July 2019, when he had loose bodies in his throwing elbow.
The only other time Snell has been on the IL because of anything arm-related during his big-league career was in July 2018, when he missed two weeks because of shoulder fatigue. Again, pitchers break. We’re not going to pretend otherwise. But don’t confuse his lack of 200-inning seasons as being the product of an arm that just won’t work — and don’t mistake him as someone who cannot help a team win more games this year.