Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Snell Ya Later
By Ben Valentine

Last season, when people talked about the Pirates’ young pitching staff, the guy who got the most press was lefty Zach Duke. There was good reason for it; he had a 1.81 ERA and with a K/9 of 6.17 and K/BB of 2.52, encouraging peripherals as well. However 2005 is now a distant memory and with the lefty struggling in his sophomore campaign, he should no longer be considered the brightest spot on the Bucs’ staff. That distinction should go to right hander Ian Snell.

On the surface, Snell’s ERA of 4.85 and WHIP of 1.55 look like the numbers of a young pitcher who’s going to struggle to keep a rotation spot in the bigs. But a closer look at his peripherals show a pitcher who might not be far away from becoming a solid big league starter. The 24 year old has a strike out rate of 7.41 per nine and a strike out to walk ratio of 1.98 in 105.2 innings this year. His ground ball/fly ball mark is 1.18 and his HR/9 is 1.08. Overall, these are not bad, though the K/BB is a bit low for a non groundball pitcher. Still, the 4.85 ERA seems a bit high for a guy who’s missing as many bats as Snell is this year; he ranks 25th in all of baseball in K/9 and 14th in the National League.

The problem for Snell has been Opp BA, which stands at a poor .297 this season. Just to show how fluky that stat can be; Snell’s mark last year was .267 despite missing fewer bats, having poorer control and generating fewer ground balls. In fact, perhaps the most encouraging sign with Snell is that he’s shown tremendous improvement from 2005 to 2006. Last season in 42 innings, he had a K/9 7.29 but a K/BB of 1.42 and a GB/FB of .85. He’s shown better control and greater ability to generate ground balls without sacrificing his strike out rates. That bodes well for the future.

Yesterday I talked about Justin Verlander and compared him to pitchers who had GB/FB ratios within a tenth of his. I localized that to the AL, but its worth mentioning that Snell’s mark is within that range. So, here’s a quick comparison.

Verlander: 2.83 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 5.73 K/9, 2.14 K/BB, 1.26 GB/FB, .247 Opp BA.

Snell: 4.85 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 7.41 K/9, 1.98 K/BB, 1.18 GB/FB, .297 Opp BA

This goes to show there isn’t all that much difference between the “phenom” Verlander and the “struggling” Snell. The biggest controllable thing holding the Pirates’ righty back is his walks, but the K/BB ratio shouldn’t be enough to warrant that big of a gulf between their ERAs. If Verlander has been lucky this year, Snell has been the opposite. Defense and ballpark also plays a role here as well, since the Tigers have a leg up on the Pirates in both departments. Their park is harder to hit the ball out of and their defense is tighter.

In fact, using the Hardball Times’ FIP statistic, we see that Snell is not alone. Both Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, the other two Pirates pitchers who qualify, have FIP lower than their actual ERAs. Duke’s FIP is 4.39, while his ERA is 5.15! Maholm’s difference isn’t as great; 4.84 compared to 5.05. Snell is sort of the median for the two in terms of how badly his fielding has hurt his ERA; he has a FIP of 4.34 compared to his 4.85 mark. Essentially, the Pirates aren’t doing their pitchers any favors.

Going forward, I think it’s entire possible the 24 year old blossoms into a pitcher similar to the one he was in the minors next season. There, Snell looked like a solid #2 guy with a career K/9 of 8.17 while his K/BB was 3.61. The strike out rate may never get to 8.00 but it doesn’t have to so long as he can get his K/BB over 2.50.

Adding it all up, and Ian Snell looks like he could be a good pitcher in this league for years to come. He may not have the hype but he’s certainly one of the better young pitchers in baseball.

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