Nobody’s Buying Blake Snell

It’s been a weird offseason for starting pitchers in baseball. If you take a look at the contracts signed so far, you’ve got Shohei Ohtani at the top with his $700 million contract with the Dodgers (caveat: he also hits) and then Yoshinobu Yamamoto with his $325 million contract with the Dodgers (caveat: he’s coming from Japan). The vanilla starting pitcher standard is currently set by Aaron Nola, who re-signed with the Phillies for seven years and $172 million toward the very beginning of the offseason. Since then there’s been … well, mostly nothing, unless you count Blake Snell reportedly (caveat: Bob Nightengale) turning down a six-year, $150 million deal from the Yankees.

Even if you were to chalk Nola’s contract up to overpay, or write it off as a free-agent signing entirely, Snell can certainly make an argument that his pitching is worth more than $25 million a year. Until (or unless) Snell sets the market, Nola is currently the only pitcher this year with a long-term deal to compare against. They’re about the same age, and just looking at single-line encapsulations of their 2023 seasons, Snell had a 2.25 ERA, was worth 6.0 rWAR, and won a Cy Young, while Nola had a 4.46 ERA, was worth a deeply average 2.1 rWAR, and didn’t get a single Cy Young vote. Snell, who has something of a reputation for being a five-inning starts merchant, even hit 180 innings pitched!

Then again, Snell only broke 180 innings pitched in the two seasons when he won the Cy Young—his season high after that is 129 innings pitched, in 2017. Compare that to his AL Cy Young–winning counterpart, Gerrit Cole, whose non-pandemic-year low since 2017 is 181.1 innings pitched. Compare that, even, to Nola, who pitched 168 innings in 2017 and since then has pitched at least 180 innings in every full MLB season. Innings-counting is tedious, but for all that some contenders are willing to take big swings on injury-prone starters with great stuff for the sake of a good playoff run, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to shell out $270 million (caveat: Bob Nightengale, again) for one.

ERA is finicky by nature. According to Statcast, Snell vastly overperformed his xERA in 2023, which was a much more modest 3.71. Compare Snell’s historical xERA metrics to Nola’s and suddenly they look much more on par, even factoring Snell’s previous Cy Young season; in 2023, Nola’s xERA was 3.79. Hell, you don’t even have to go for Statcast. Switch from Baseball-Reference to FanGraphs, which uses FIP (a metric that factors in walks, strikeouts, HBPs, and home runs, taking all fielding and BABIP considerations out of the equation) for its WAR calculations, and Snell has 4.1 fWAR to Nola’s 3.9—a far cry from the four WAR that separate them in Baseball-Reference’s calculation. For all his strikeouts, Snell led the league in walks in last year.

It isn’t that Snell is a bad pitcher, by any means. He’s just inconsistent by nature, and the exact type of modern-day pitcher who can feel terrible to watch—95 mph fastball, middling-to-bad control, etc. You know the type. There’s this conception nowadays that analytics-obsessed teams are prioritizing pitchers who have great stuff but can’t go deep into games. While Snell is just one guy who serves as one example, the fact that he hasn’t been snapped up at some exorbitant contract value provides encouraging data to the five-inning-merchant naysayers out there—so long as you can separate it from an increasing reticence to pay aging free agents exorbitant amounts of money overall.

Or maybe all this analysis of Snell’s pitching is for naught and it’s more a Scott Boras issue. It was reportedly Snell’s camp, after all, who had turned down the $150 million deal with the Yankees. As Lindsey Adler writes for The Wall Street Journal, several other high-profile free agents who are also Boras clients have yet to find teams for 2024, including Jordan Montgomery (who may-or-may-not be waiting on Snell to find a team first), Cody Bellinger, and Matt Chapman. I can’t speak to what impact Boras has on negotiations, but maybe after having one brutal year of Carlos Rodón, who admittedly looked extremely good in 2021 and 2022 when healthy, the Yankees saw Scott Boras push another injury-prone starter on them for some unspecified amount (possibly $270 million) and went, “OK, man, we’ve been through this before. You got me once, but I’m not giving you $162 million over six years again. $150 million over six is the highest I can go!” Then they signed Marcus Stroman to a reasonable two-year, $37 million deal instead. There’s evidence of a lesson learned in there, I’m sure, but I don’t know what.

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