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Snell building Cy Young case with historic ERA

1.24 home mark best by AL pitcher since Vida Blue in 1971
MLB.com @mike_petriello

If the 2018 Rays have been known for anything, it's their innovative use of "the opener," the strategy of pitching a short reliever at the start of a game rather than later in relief. It's been a big part of their stunning success; since they implemented the opener for the first time on May 19, they have a 3.45 ERA, the lowest in the American League and the second lowest in the Majors.

But as we tried to explain in June, Tampa Bay's ability to keep runs off the board isn't just due to the unconventional way that manager Kevin Cash is deploying his pitchers. Once every five days, it's because of something far more traditional: Blake Snell, the only "normal" starter the Rays have, has pitched like one of the few true aces in the game, to the point that he's vaulted himself squarely into the AL Cy Young Award race.

If the 2018 Rays have been known for anything, it's their innovative use of "the opener," the strategy of pitching a short reliever at the start of a game rather than later in relief. It's been a big part of their stunning success; since they implemented the opener for the first time on May 19, they have a 3.45 ERA, the lowest in the American League and the second lowest in the Majors.

But as we tried to explain in June, Tampa Bay's ability to keep runs off the board isn't just due to the unconventional way that manager Kevin Cash is deploying his pitchers. Once every five days, it's because of something far more traditional: Blake Snell, the only "normal" starter the Rays have, has pitched like one of the few true aces in the game, to the point that he's vaulted himself squarely into the AL Cy Young Award race.

On Wednesday, Snell took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against the Indians, settling for allowing one run and one hit over seven innings in a 3-1 win, lowering his ERA to 2.03.

There's more to pitching success than ERA, obviously. There's innings, where Snell lags behind Justin Verlander and Corey Kluber by more than 30, thanks in part to a short stint on the disabled list. There are the underlying factors of strikeouts, walks, home runs and quality of contact, obviously, and those will all need to be taken into consideration at the end of the year when very difficult decisions for the AL Cy Young Award balloting are made.

Video: Is Blake Snell the American League Cy Young favorite?

But for now, let's talk about that ERA. We'll do that because it's a number everyone understands, because it goes to keeping runs off the board, and because Snell's seven innings against Cleveland qualified him for the leaderboards, which is going to be a big deal to voters.

It's the best ERA in Rays history.

OK, we understand: The Rays have only been around since 1998. Bartolo Colon was in the Majors before Tampa Bay was. This isn't the same thing as saying that something is the best thing in the history of the Cardinals, Dodgers or Yankees. But still, it's a place to start.

In Rays history, there have been 51 qualified starter seasons. Snell's ERA is the lowest.

Lowest ERA by Tampa Bay starters from 1998-2018
2.03 -- Snell, 2018
2.56 -- David Price, 2012
2.72 -- Price, 2010
2.82 -- James Shields, 2011
2.87 -- Alex Cobb, 2014

Now, Shields threw 249 1/3 innings in 2011. Snell has 164, with maybe three starts left. Your mileage may certainly vary here. This still puts Snell on top of a pretty important franchise leaderboard.

It's the lowest AL ERA since Pedro Martinez. Maybe.

Any time you can get your name next to "Pedro Martinez," you know you're having a good season. So, that's exactly what we've done.

Lowest ERA by AL starters from 1990-2018
1.74 -- Pedro Martinez, 2000
1.93 -- Roger Clemens, 1990
1.96 -- Chris Sale, 2018
2.03 -- Snell, 2018
2.05 -- Clemens, 1997
2.07 -- Martinez, 1999

The elephant in the room there is Sale, who is qualified right now because he has 147 innings, while the Red Sox have played 145 games. (The standard is "one inning per team game.") He'll fall off this list by Saturday, then get back on when he pitches an expected three innings on Sunday, then fall off again later. If Sale goes three innings, will he be able to collect the dozen more he'd need to qualify for the season-ending leaderboards? If not, his 1.96 ERA (or whatever he ends up with) won't appear. You'd like to think that wouldn't matter to voters, but it does. We know it does.

Video: TB@CLE: Snell strikes out Guyer, the side in 6th

It's one of the few ERA seasons to be only half as high the league average.

Snell entered Thursday with a 50 ERA- (that's ERA-minus), a park-adjusted metric that compares to the league average for that year, setting 100 as league-average, which helps put National League and AL pitchers on the same scale. If you have a 90 ERA-, you're 10 percent better than average. If you have a 50 ERA-, you're only half as high as the league average.

Since 1947, there have been about 6,000 seasons of 150 innings. Only 20 of them came from pitchers who had an ERA- below 50, and we're talking some stud seasons here, like Dwight Gooden's 1985, Jacob deGrom this year, Bob Gibson's 1968, four seasons from Martinez... and Snell, this year. It's incredibly impressive.

It's one of the 10 lowest home ERAs since Jackie Robinson integrated baseball. 

Speaking of lists with names you want to be surrounded by, how about one with two Hall of Famers in the top three?

Snell has been fantastic all around this year, but he's especially been dominant at home in Tropicana Field, where -- including Wednesday's start -- he's carrying a 1.24 ERA. That's all of 11 earned runs in 80 innings; in 13 starts at home, Snell has allowed more than one run once. That was last week against Baltimore, when he allowed all of two runs in a 14-2 romp over the Orioles.

It's so good, in fact, that if you look at every pitcher who has thrown at least 160 innings in a season since 1947, only six had a lower ERA at home than Snell does this year.

Lowest home ERA from 1947-2018 (minimum 160 season innings)
0.85 -- Sandy Koufax, 1964
1.07 -- Nolan Ryan, 1972
1.07 -- Dean Chance, 1964
1.08 -- Orel Hershiser, 1985
1.19 -- Vida Blue, 1971
1.19 -- Jose Fernandez, 2013
1.24 -- Snell, 2018
1.24 -- Gary Nolan, 1972

It's not just Snell, to be clear. The entire Rays staff, entering Thursday's game, had a 2.94 home ERA, the lowest in baseball. On the road, that shot up to 4.39; the resulting gap of 1.44 is the second-largest gap between home and road ERA, behind only whatever's going in Miami.

It's reasonable to think that Snell is better at home and that Tropicana Park is simply a nice place to pitch.

Now what's causing all that success? Snell, remember, struggled so badly at points in 2017 that he actually spent a month of the summer in Triple-A, before returning to put together a fantastic second half, crediting his improvement in part to a change in his mound position.

To start with, there's the strikeouts. There's so many strikeouts. Only two starters have improved their strikeout rate more since last year than Snell has, at least among those with 100 innings pitches in both years.

Biggest increases in strikeout percentage, 2017-18 (minimum 100 innings)
+11.5 percent -- Gerrit Cole (23.1 to 34.6)
+9.8 percent -- Patrick Corbin (21.6 to 31.3)
+8.8 percent -- Snell (21.8 to 30.6)
+7.8 percent -- Verlander (25.8 to 33.6)

Snell ranks in the top 10 biggest decreases in walks, as well. It's a nice combination.

There's the defense, too, particularly on the infield. When we look at the difference between expected batting average (based on exit velocity and launch angle) and actual batting average on ground balls, only four teams -- including elite units in Arizona and Oakland -- have performed better than Tampa Bay.

Tweet from @mike_petriello: A quick-and-dirty way to get to good infield defense performance is to look at BA vs. Expected BA (based on exit velo/launch angle) on grounders. Having that list start with Oakland, Arizona, Cubs makes a ton of sense to me. pic.twitter.com/ll0G2Ti0Zi

Now will all of this end in the franchise's second ALCy Young Award? Let's say Snell gets another win, for 20, and gets his ERA to 2.00 or below. Since the advent of individual Cy Young Awards in each league in 1967, there have been 15 such seasons. Thirteen of them either won the award or came in the same season as another pitcher doing it as well. (One of the two who didn't win was 1990 Roger Clemens, who lost out to Bob Welch's 27-6, back when that was all that mattered.)

Then again, deGrom's NL Cy Young Award story has been about how wins don't matter. (They don't.) If Snell doesn't win the AL Cy Young Award, it will be because of his large innings deficit, or because a group that includes Sale, Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber is just so stacked. There's too many talented players and not enough awards. Snell won't need one to validate the steps he's taken this year. 

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

Tampa Bay Rays, Blake Snell