There may be playoff baseball going on but the St. Louis Cardinals offseason is in full swing and there’s one main target - pitching. So, I’m starting a series in which I look at the top options available to the Cardinals this winter. I’ll start with free agents but I may get to some trade targets too.
The top options on the free agent market this year are widely considered to be Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, and Sonny Gray, but there are some Japanese arms and other pitchers to be examined as well.
I’ll start by looking at Blake Snell today.
For starters, the Cardinals do appear to have interest in Blake Snell. That’s important to mention before I get into this.
The interest was reported by Derrick Goold in one of his latest chats.
They’ll have discussions with Snell, and of course, and there has already some intel gathering on that end to see where and how he would fit, but also how far to go in the bidding to get him.
So now that we know Snell is a legitimate option for the Cardinals, we can take a serious look at what he brings to table.
Blake Snell really became a dominant pitcher for the first time in 2018 with the Rays, finishing the year with a 1.89 ERA, 2.94 FIP, and 31.6% strikeout rate en route to his first Cy Young award. And, now I said first Cy Young award because he’s in the mix again this year after leading all qualified starters in ERA (2.25) and finishing second in strikeout rate (31.5%).
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. After 2018, Snell really struggled to build on his success as he never again crossed the 3 fWAR threshold with the Rays. His first season with the Padres in 2021 was just okay and it wasn’t until 2022 then he had another legitimately excellent season. But now Snell has strung two of those together in his final two seasons before hitting free agency. That means he’s going to get paid this winter.
A potential risk is that the lefty does have a bit of an injury history, missing time with an abductor injury last year and then going on the IL following a flare up of the same issue in April of this year. Going back further, Snell missed a couple of starts with shoulder fatigue in 2018 and then had surgery to remove loose bodies in his elbow in 2019.
Every year, Snell has seemed to a minor issue or two that keep him from making a full 32 starts but there haven’t been a lot of major arm injuries in his career. All things considered, that’s not a terrible injury history, especially for a pitcher.
The fact that Blake Snell is even in the running for NL Cy Young is incredible when you consider just how poorly he started his 2023 season. By the end of May, Snell had made 11 starts and had earned a 4.50 ERA and 5.04 FIP and was striking out opposing hitters at just a 24.6% rate, which was a worrying sign considering Snell’s history of missing bats.
But he made one simple tweak to overcome his slow start - he lowered his fastball usage.
Blake Snell Fastball Usage by Month
|Month||FB Usage (%)|
|Month||FB Usage (%)|
From June through the end of the season, Snell posted a 1.23 ERA, 2.72 FIP, and 3.19 xFIP, while averaging about 6 innings per start. His strikeout rate also jumped to 35%.
There’s a simple reason why this tweak worked and it’s not because Snell’s fastball is bad. Rather, it’s because Snell’s offspeed and breaking stuff is flat out dominant.
Blake Snell’s Secondaries
To put that dominance into perspective, Snell’s curveball had the highest whiff rate of any curveball in the league (minimum usage of 50 PAs), his slider had the 3rd highest whiff rate of any slider in the league, and his changeup had the 5th highest whiff rate of any changeup in the league.
Simply put, Snell’s non-fastballs are unhittable. This is a true bat missing arsenal, and while Snell may struggle with control at times, it’s likely that he can continue to be a dominant force if he keeps his fastball usage below 50%. And based on his willingness to tweak in-season it seems likely that he would continue to throw more non-fastballs than fastballs.
And that brings us to an analysis of Snell’s fastball. We know that his secondaries are nasty but what about the other half of his arsenal? Statistically, the pitch left a lot to be desired this year. It allowed a .354 wOBA and a .399 xwOBA while the pitch’s 19.5% whiff rate was it’s lowest since 2017.
Yet despite all that, I still feel confident in the pitch. Snell located it outside the zone less than 50% of the time for the first time since 2018 and, on top of that, the pitch generated it’s lowest ever chase rate (17.3%). That’s not a good recipe for limiting walks so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Snell finished 2023 with a career high walk rate.
So, you might ask, what changed? Why did the pitch struggle this year?
The answer to that question is not a decline in overall stuff. The pitch stayed strong at 95.5 mph on average and still had it’s trademark rising effect with a whopping 18.8 inches of induced vertical break. So that’s fine. His fastball didn’t get worse this year, it just performed worse.
What changed was the pitch’s location. After seeing the pitch specs, you may expect that this is a pitch that should be thrown up in the zone. And you would be right.
The problem is that Snell threw it further down in the zone this year.
Here is the pitch’s 2023 heat map:
And here is the 2022 heat map:
You should notice two things from these images. The first is that Snell located his fastball higher in the zone on average in 2022 than he did in 2023. The second is that he targeted the arm side more in 2022.
Both of these things are important but I focus on pitch height first. As I mentioned already, Snell’s fastball belongs at the top of the zone and the numbers support this idea. Take a look at how Snell’s fastball fared in each quadrant of the strike zone.
The pitch obliterated hitters when it was in the upper third of the zone but you’ll notice that it was much more hittable as it moved down. So it makes sense that Snell’s fastball would have worse results when the height of the average hitter dropped from 2.81 feet to 2.64 feet, the lowest mark of Snell’s career.
The pitch should not only have better results and miss more bats when it’s thrown at the upper reaches of the zone but it should also lead to more chases as it pairs better with Snell’s secondary stuff, which he likes to throw at the bottom of the zone. A “rising” fastball thrown in the same spot as a nasty, low-80s, downward breaking curveball can be a tough pairing for a hitter, especially when the metrics are so good on both pitches.
So, if the Cardinals do indeed sign Snell, I would look for them to keep his fastball rate below 50% and also get him to work the top of the zone more consistently with his heater.
To briefly mention the change in horizontal location, I’ll note that it’s not particularly bad from a results perspective for Snell to throw glove side fastballs as opposed to arm side fastballs. Rather, I think the change simply indicates a decline in overall command, which could help explain why Snell threw his fastballs lower in the zone as well.
This is a legitimate concern and it’s one that directly ties to his career-high strikeout rate so if there’s a major concern with Snell it’s with his fastball command.
Add that to the fact that Snell has only twice eclipsed 30 starts and 180 innings pitched in his career and there are some durability concerns to go with fastball command and overall control concerns with his 13.3% walk rate.
Aaron Nola may be the youngest and the most proven of the trio of high-end free agents with qualifying offers attached but Snell is the one with the best pure stuff. There are concerns with him just as their are concerns with the others, but that tends to be the case with high-end free agent pitching, or even just free agent pitching in general
Because of that, a lot of how I feel about any move the Cardinals make is going to come down to price and length. With Snell having durability concerns, it’s tough to predict how well he will age, though he has done a good job of avoiding major arm injuries throughout his career.
If the Cardinals do end up signing Snell, though, I’ll be excited to watch his stuff play at the top of the Cardinals rotation.
Thanks for reading, VEB. Hit the comments to let me know your favorite free agent target. I’ll be back next week with a deep dive on Aaron Nola.