Ian Snell is hard to figure out. Snell came up through the Pirates system and broke into the league in 2004. He was used sparingly in ’04 and ’05 and then was added to Pittsburg’s rotation in 2006. That year Snell had a 14-11 record despite his 4.74 ERA (and a slightly lower 4.58 FIP). The next year his wins took a hit (as to be expected when you play for the Pirates) but his ERA and FIP were a very respectable 3.76 and 4.01. Snell was on his way up. He missed a lot of bats with his above average slider and assortment of other pitches. He was young and only supposed to get better.
Then 2008 happened. Snell’s ERA jumped all the way up to 5.42 (although his FIP was at 4.57) and his record fell to 7-12. The struggle continued through the early part of 2009. Snell had a combination of bad luck, bad fielding behind him, a lack of control, and a loss of confidence. Everyone could see that he still had good stuff but he left pitches up in the zone which caused a raise in his fly ball %. He started giving up too many doubles and home runs. All of this ended up in Pittsburg sending Snell down to the minors for a spell (where he responded by striking out 17 hitters in one game) and then trading him to the Mariners as a part of the Jack Wilson trade.
Snell was mediocre in his starts with the Mariners. He always produced swinging strikes but often got hit hard because of the ball being up in the zone. This trend has continued throughout this spring.
So the question is, “Can Ian Snell become a valuable starting pitcher for the Mariners?” He will start the season in the rotation, barring injury, and will be counted on to produce a good start every fifth day. A couple things will need to happen for Snell to get back to a quality 3 or 4 starter for the Mariners.
- His fastball must get better. No one questions Snell’s good slider but his fastball, which sets the slider up, has become suspect. Over the past 4 years his fastball velocity has slowly decreased. And over the last two years Snell threw the fastball a higher percentage of times than in his solid ’06 and ’07 campaigns. Seattle Sports Insider (who took a look at all the starting pitchers in that link) made the observation that his fastball seems flat and lifeless. For a guy with a fastball that is 89-91 mph, this is bad news. Movement is needed for his fastball and right now it seems that he doesn’t have much of it. If Snell is to become a good pitcher his fastball has to become better. That or he has to locate it much better, which leads me to my next point:
- Snell has to get the ball down in the zone. In 2007 Snell’s ground ball to flyball ratio was 1.23. Last year, his ratio was at .96. By no means is Snell a ground ball pitcher (and we saw last year that flyball pitchers in Safeco can work) but with this bad of a ratio comes too many home runs and doubles. Leaving pitches up in the zone combined with a mediocre fastball is a recipe for disaster. If Snell can keep the ball down his fastball becomes less of a liability and then he can get to his stellar out pitches. (Not only does he not keep the ball down, he doesn’t throw enough strikes. Control is a problem and if he could figure that out, Snell could be much, much better).
- He needs to get better against lefties. Snell’s platoon splits are drastically bad. Because his slider isn’t a very effective pitch against lefties, Snell has no above average pitch against them. His fastball doesn’t tail away from lefties, which is a way many right-handed pitchers get lefties out. His change-up is an okay pitch, which could be efficient against left-handed hitters. His splits last year were quite a bit better than 2008 which is a direct correlation to a 5% increase in change-ups thrown. If Snell’s fastball gets better and his change-up is used more than his splits won’t be near as bad.
As you can see, this comes down to Snell’s fastball and control. If he somehow rediscovers one of these things he’ll be a decent pitcher. If he rediscovers both of these things he could be a good pitcher. Unfortunately, this is a lot to ask. I like Snell and I like his upside. Z believes he can be a good pitcher so that’s enough for me to believe at the moment. But he needs to show improvement quickly or else he’ll be replaced in the rotation once Lee and Bedard (hopefully) return. If Snell becomes the pitcher he was in 2006 or 2007 the Mariners would be that much closer to a very memorable season.