Cy Snell back? Lefty rediscovering ace form

September 7th, 2021

For much of 2021, it has felt like the Padres and have been going in opposite directions.

Over the first four months, San Diego put up a .561 winning percentage, while Snell recorded a 5.44 ERA and a 13.0 K-BB% (strikeout rate minus walk rate; 14.6% is MLB average) through 19 starts.

With Snell struggling and injuries mounting on its pitching staff, the club pursued top-level starting pitching at the Trade Deadline and was in the running for before watching the rival Dodgers acquire both Scherzer and from the Nationals.

Since the beginning of August, the script has flipped. The Friars have played sub-.500 ball and are in a tight race for the second Wild Card spot in the National League.

However, at the same time, Snell began to more closely resemble the pitcher the Padres thought they were getting when they traded , and two other prospects for the left-hander in December, the guy who took home the 2018 AL Cy Young Award.

Across six starts in August, Snell pitched to a 1.72 ERA with a 30.2 K-BB% in 36 2/3 innings. He capped the month with one of the best starts of his career: seven innings of no-hit ball with 10 strikeouts and two walks against the D-backs.

Snell is scheduled to make his first September start Tuesday against the Angels, and the Padres’ playoff hopes may now hinge on the 28-year-old’s ability to carry his August success into the final month of the regular season.

For Snell, that likely means continuing to shut down right-handed batters. His improvement in that area was a huge part of his August turnaround.

Snell vs. RHB in 2021
April-July: .379 wOBA allowed, 8.6 K-BB%
August: .250 wOBA allowed, 29.5 K-BB%

Here’s a look at what Snell did differently last month.

He ditched his worst pitch

Snell had success using his changeup to neutralize right-handed batters in the past, but this year, it just wasn’t working.

Through the end of July, right-handed batters obliterated Snell’s changeup to the tune of a .439 average with two homers and a .610 slugging percentage in 41 at-bats. So, in August, he stopped using it. During the entire month, Snell threw only five changeups, all to righties.

Snell’s pitch usage vs. RHB through July 31
Four-seamer: 48.2%
Slider: 18.2%
Changeup: 18.2%
Curveball: 15.4%

Snell’s pitch usage vs. RHB in August
Four-seamer: 59.2%
Slider: 29.2%
Curveball: 10.5%
Changeup: 1.1%

More four-seamers (and better location)

As you can probably tell from Snell’s usage rates above, the left-hander’s four-seam fastball was another big part of his improved performance against righties last month.

Snell not only used his four-seamer more but also located it better, leading to more swings and misses, especially on in-zone pitches.

Snell’s four-seam fastball heat maps against right-handed batters (the chart on the left is through July 31, while the right chart is from August) show that he did a better job keeping the ball down and away in those matchups last month than he did earlier in the season.

Snell’s whiff rate on four-seamers in the zone against right-handed batters spiked to 22% in August, up from 12.7% through July 31.

Snell also leaned on his four-seamer more as a putaway pitch, helping to drive up his strikeout rate and cut down his walk rate.

Over the first four months, Snell had 28 strikeouts in 144 plate appearances ending on four-seamers against right-handed batters. He nearly matched that strikeout number in August alone, picking up 24 K’s in 68 PAs with his four-seamer in those matchups.

All told, right-handed batters went 8-for-60 (.133) with a .267 slugging percentage against Snell’s four-seamer in August after hitting over .300 and slugging over .600 vs. the pitch previously.

He started throwing more sliders, too

Believe it or not, Snell threw his slider more often against right-handed batters in August than he did in any previous month, dating back to his debut in 2016.

Turns out, it was a good strategy. The left-hander registered a 52.8% whiff rate and a 50% strikeout rate with the pitch against right-handed batters last month. He's held such hitters to a .176 average and a .310 slugging percentage with 121 strikeouts in 242 plate appearances ending on sliders during his career.

Snell appears to have rediscovered his Cy Young form, and not a moment too soon for the Padres, who have watched Yu Darvish, Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers post a collective 7.11 ERA since the All-Star break.

Another month like the one he just had could ensure the Friars are still playing in October. And when it comes time to pick a starter for the NL Wild Card Game, should they get there, it might just be Snell who gets the ball.