Sunday, October 05, 2008

Looking back on 2008: What's the deal with Ian Snell?

For my 2008 season review, I'm going to try and answer questions that arose in 2008 that apply to the future of the team. Today, Ian Snell's frustrating season.

When Jeff Andrews was canned last week, the main reason that it happened was that Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny took major steps back this year. I'm not certain that was justified in Gorzelanny's case, because I thought he pitched like a guy that was injured all season (but that's for another day). Snell is a different story. After he came off of the disabled list, his problems seemed to be mostly mechanical and when he did eventually fix them (his last seven starts were really quite good; we'll get to them later), he credited watching CC Sabathia on his iPhone instead of the pitching coach.

So what happened with Ian Snell? In his last seven starts, he rolled off a 3.79 ERA, which is a decent figure. More importantly, he rung up 35 strikeouts in 38 innings while walking 16. That walk rate (3.79/9) isn't great, but it's not terribly out of line with his rate from his two years prior to this one (3.23/9 in 2006 and 2007 combined) and much better than his first 24 starts (5.2/9). After his great start against the Cardinals on August 19th, which started his nice stretch run, Snell said this:

"Watching CC, he used his fastball command to set up the slider, rather than vice versa," Snell said. "Well, I put my fastball where I wanted, and everything else happened."
Was there a real difference in the way he pitched down the stretch? Or did he simply throw better as he got more comfortable in his return from his injury? With that question in mind, I decided, to look through the PitchFX and see what I could find. For simplicity's sake, I figured I'd use Snell's starts on August 14th and August 19th to see if I could find anything interesting.

We'll start with the game on the 14th. Snell threw a first pitch fastball to every single hitter in the lineup the first time through the order. The second time through the order, he started Chris Dickerson, Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Javier Valentin, and Edwin Encarnacion with sliders, Paul Bako with a changeup, and only Jeff Keppinger, Corey Patterson and Johnny Cueto with fastballs. The third time through, Dickerson got a fastball, Keppinger got a slider, Bruce got a fastball, Phillips got a slider, Valentin got a changeup, Encarnacion got a fastball, Patterson got a fastball, and Bako got another changeup. Pinch hitter Andy Phillilps also got a fastball. Snell only faced Dickerson (one more fastball) and Keppinger (one more slider) four times before coming out of the game. Without the benefit of scouting reports on each hitter, which is admittedly important, Snell faced 29 hitters that night and started 18 of them with fastballs, 8 with sliders, and 3 with changes. Perhaps more interestingly, he only started 9 of the last 20 hitters he faced with fastballs.

In his next start, the breakthrough start against the Cardinals, he again started every hitter with a fastball the first time through the lineup. The second time through the linup Skip Schumaker and Rick Ankiel got changeups to start, but the next six hitters (including Troy Glaus, Albert Pujols, and Ryan Ludwick) all got first pitch fastballs before Cesar Izturis got a slider. The third time through, everyone got a fastball but Troy Glaus (including pinch-hitter Aaron Miles), though Snell didn't face Izturis a third time. In that game, he faced 26 hitters and started 22 of them with a fastball. That includes 12 first-pitch fastballs against the 16 hitters he was facing for the second or third time, compared with 9 first-pitch fastballs against 19 hitters he had already faced.

That's some interesting stuff, but I need one more control. Afterall, Snell might always throw the Cardinals more fastballs. He started against the Cards on July 13th. In that game he actually started Pujols and Chris Duncan with sliders the first time through the lineup, while everone else got a fastball. For the game, he started 15 of 24 hitters with fastballs, six hitters with sliders, one hitter with a change, and one hitter (Albert Pujols) with a curve. For hitters that he faced for a second or third time, he threw fastballs to eight of the fourteen of them, while four got sliders, one got a curve, and one got a change.

This is nothing more than a hypothesis without a comprehensive study of each of Ian Snell's starts over the past couple of years (something that I don't have the time for right now), but I think that it's certainly very likely that if you spent time looking at the last six starts Snell made this year, the first pitch selection would look an awful lot like it did in that start against the Cardinals while if you looked at the first pitch selection from the other 22 starts before the Cardinals game, they'd look an awful lot like the two games that I already looked at. If what I've found here does hold up against the other starts, then Snell's problem is obvious; he struggles when he doesn't lean on his fastball to get ahead on the count.

When Jason Schimdt left Pittsburgh and became a perennial Cy Young candidate in San Francisco, he once came back and gave an interview with one of the Pirates' broadcasters. He said part of the reason he never hit his stride with the Pirates was because the awful defense behind him made him scared to start hitters out with fastballs. He was never sure the seven guys in the field could make the play if the ball was hit at them. Given the high batting average on balls in play against Snell with the Pirates (.322 in '06, .313 in '07, and .358 last year) and the notoriously bad defense that the Pirates have played the last few seasons, I think his problem is probably similar.