PEORIA, Ariz. —By the end of last season, Blake Snell was pitching as well as he ever had. Better even.
“I’ve had some good stretches in my career,” the San Diego Padres left-hander said in mild protest to that assessment.
Yes, in 2018, the year the Shorewood High School alum was the American League’s Cy Young Award winner, it could be argued Snell was better.
But in his final six starts of 2021 (not including the one in which he walked off the mound for the final time just 11 pitches into a Sept. 12 game at Dodger Stadium with an adductor strain), he posted a 1.86 ERA and 0.65 WHIP over 38.2 innings. He had 59 strikeouts and opponents batted .110 against him. Included in that run were successive starts in which he allowed the Dodgers a run on three hits in a career-high 7.2 innings and threw seven hitless innings against the Diamondbacks.
That stacks up favorably with any six-game run in his career. In fact, it was far superior to all but four such stretches in 2018.
“I hit my stride,” he said this week. “I locked it in … It was just like a perfect combo. My stuff was there the whole (season), and the mental side came around and then the confidence built and that snowballs.”
That was the guy the Padres paid for when they sent their second-ranked pitching prospect (Luis Patiño) and three other young players to the Rays and took on the three years and $39 million remaining on Snell’s contract in December 2020.
So how does he build on that?
Well, before a discussion about how Snell will attain that level of symbiosis this season, what must be discussed is a timeline.
Snell says the adductor (a group of muscles near the hip on the inside of the thigh) is healthy and he will be ready for the start of the season.
However, he probably won’t be going six innings for a while. Again.
Unlike at the beginning of last season, when for nearly a dozen starts Snell threw too many pitches to get past the fifth inning and it was something of a shock, a slow start won’t sneak up on anyone this time.
He has yet to throw to hitters in spring training. The plan is for him to make two Cactus League starts, and he figures he’ll be up to 60 pitches by his first regular season start.
“I’ll be building up for two weeks in the season,” he said. “Do you remember the first two weeks last year? … You want to be your best you at the end of the year. That is always the goal. No matter what you do, at the end of the year you have to be the best player you possibly can be.”
Snell said he began throwing as usual in the beginning of January, ramped up and then pulled back and “was just kind of maintaining” as the lockout went on.
“I still wanted the full spring, and I felt like MLB didn’t respect the players and they just want to ramp us up, build us up and they’re like, ‘You should be ready,’” Snell said. “But spring training is very important to me. … The league, they’re not going to tell me my body needs to speed up. I want the time it takes my body to go to be able to go into the season and be healthy for the whole season. And I’m not just going to ramp up, jeopardize my career, which is very important to me, because they want to give us four weeks of spring training. I was ready, but we didn’t start on time because (MLB and the players’ union) were arguing about stuff.”
Snell’s approach to getting ready for this season is reasonable from his perspective. He is the one who knows his body, and the way he has prepared has worked in terms of keeping him healthy and allowing him to be strong at the end of seasons. His career ERA is more than a point lower (2.82 versus 3.89) in the second half of seasons, and he has a 2.83 ERA in nine postseason games.
“It’s not how you start,” Snell said.
His readiness, however, is in contrast to that of the rest of the team’s starting pitchers. Yu Darvish threw three innings in Monday’s Cactus League game. Every other starter has faced batters here. The expectation is they all will have pitched in at least one game by Wednesday. Mike Clevinger, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, anticipates throwing three innings in a minor-league game that day.
“Maybe not as far along as the other guys,” manager Bob Melvin said of Snell. “But I think you might see with quite a few teams, if someone is a little bit behind, then maybe their first start is a three-inning type of thing, and you just add more bullpen pieces. I’m just hoping that he’s at that point once we start the season.”
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