Blake Snell had to have seen 2022 as an opportunity for a bounce-back. After infamously being pulled by Rays manager Kevin Cash with a one-run lead in the sixth inning of a decisive Game 6 of the 2020 World Series, the lefty was dealt to the Padres in a blockbuster that December. He struggled to find his groove in San Diego in 2021, battling through an inconsistent season for a disappointing Padres team and finishing with a 4.20 ERA, a 3.82 FIP, and a 3.74 xFIP. He must have been eager to put his middling Padres debut behind him when he prepared for his first start of 2022 on April 10, but he was scratched during his pregame bullpen session, hitting the injured list and making way for then-Padres prospect (and current Washington National) MacKenzie Gore to make his major league debut.
No, the comeback would have to wait. Snell would have to endure rehab starts in Fort Wayne, Indiana, then Lake Elsinore, California, and then El Paso, Texas before rejoining the team on May 18 in Philadelphia. He would have to suffer eight team losses in his first eight starts, during which he posted a 5.13 ERA, 3.71 FIP, and 4.04 xFIP and finished the sixth inning just twice. And in his final start before the All-Star Break on July 14 in Colorado, Snell walked six and allowed five runs over 3.2 innings. He walked his final three batters of the first half, forcing in two runs.
But you wouldn’t have known any of that last Wednesday night, when Snell took a no-hitter into the seventh inning at Petco Park against the Cardinals, one of the league’s most potent offenses, finishing the night with a career-high-tying 13 strikeouts over 7.0 scoreless innings. The performance was the crown jewel of a second half during which Snell has pitched himself back into the conversation as one of the league’s most dominant lefties – and one of San Diego’s October X factors.
Since the All-Star Break (and through last Wednesday’s games), Snell has amassed 2.5 WAR, the second-highest total in the majors and more than he was worth in all of 2021. In 12 starts in that time, he has a 2.42 ERA, leads the majors with 93 strikeouts, and ranks fifth with a 2.07 FIP, third with a 2.54 xFIP, and fourth with 12.49 strikeouts per 9.0 innings (minimum 50 innings pitched). He’s allowed no more than one run in nine of those outings:
Top Pitchers by WAR Since the All-Star Break
Through Sept. 21
His success has in part been a function of his ability to rein in the sky-high walk rate that plagued him in 2021 and the early half of this year. While Snell has never been a model of control, he looked on pace to top his career-high 12.5% walk rate from last year with a 13.8% rate through the first half, second-highest in the majors (min. 50 IP). In the second half, he’s managed to slash that by more than half, issuing walks to 5.9% of batters faced.
He has also managed to miss bats at the highest level – Snell’s 15.5% swinging strike rate in the second half trails only Jacob deGrom’s otherworldly 21.4% rate – thanks in part to increased velocity on his fastball. In July, his average fastball velocity ticked up to 95.8 mph before jumping up to 96.4 so far this month, which would mark his highest average fastball velocity since the tail end of his 2018 Cy Young season. In his last start, he was throwing harder than ever, topping his previous career-high velocity (98.5 mph in September 2018) with four-seamers at 98.9, 98.7, and 98.6 mph.
The added velocity has been enough to turn a pitch that was worth -7.4 runs in the first half into one worth 6.1 after the break. Opposing hitters posted a .418 xwOBA versus Snell’s fastball in June, .377 in July, .285 in August, and .257 so far in September. His four-seamer hasn’t been this effective since 2019:
Blake Snell’s Fastball in 2022
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Snell also seems to have developed a new level of comfort with his slider, which took over late last year as his primary offspeed offering. He’s throwing the slider over two ticks harder this year, averaging 88.8 mph, and it’s become his featured put-away pitch against both righties and lefties.
The slider was on full display last Wednesday, inducing 23 swings resulting in 15 whiffs, seven foul balls, and a seventh-inning groundout by National League MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. Seven of Snell’s 13 strikeouts came swinging on the slider.
Ultimately, one of the driving factors in Snell’s second-half success has been that his arsenal has allowed him to return to effectiveness against right-handed hitters. Righties have posted a .259 wOBA against Snell in the second half after posting a .328 mark in the first half – and a .334 mark in 2021.
The result has been a Snell reminiscent of his Rays days.
As the Padres close in on a playoff berth, Snell’s improvements have him poised to be a huge factor in what is now a best-of-three Wild Card series. Depending on how the rest of the season shakes out, the Padres are most likely to meet either the Cardinals or whichever of the Mets and Braves fails to take the NL East. In any case, the Friar pitching staff – including starters Snell, Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea, and Mike Clevinger – will have their hands full with one of the better offenses in the majors. Depending on how Bob Melvin uses his staff the rest of the way, Snell looks like a strong candidate to start a potentially decisive game. The Padres have to feel pretty good about that right now.