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The Yankees may have won the game on a walk-off solo home run by Brett Gardner in the bottom of the ninth, but the most compelling action in the Bronx on Saturday afternoon was the major league debut of Tampa Bay Rays lefty Blake Snell. One of the top pitching prospects in baseball, Snell was called up to make a spot start, but pitched well enough that the Rays’ predetermined decision to send him back to Triple A could be a difficult one to stick to.
Ranked the 12th best prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to this season (fourth among pitchers on that list behind only the Dodgers’ Julio Urias, the Nationals’ Lucas Giolito and the Cardinals’ Alex Reyes and one spot ahead of the Mets’ Steven Matz), the 23-year-old Blake seems sure to be a permanent part of the Rays’ rotation at some point this season. After his performance on Saturday, there are sure to be many who are clamoring for that moment to be now.
Working with a mid-90s fastball that topped out at 96 miles per hour, a looping mid-70s curve that he repeatedly dropped into the zone for called strikes and a mid-80s changeup and slider, Snell held the Yankees to one first-inning run and just two hits while striking out six over five innings. After an eventful first inning, Snell allowed just two baserunners over his final four frames, one of which came on a Brad Miller error on a soft broken-bat groundball, striking out six of the 14 men he faced in those innings, a whopping 43%.
Things could have been much worse in that first inning. The first batter the baby-faced Snell faced in the majors, left-handed Yankee leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, hit a 2–2 fastball to the warning track in the leftfield gap only to have the spectacular Kevin Kiermaier track it down for the first out of Snell’s major league career. After fellow lefty Brett Gardner popped out, the right-handed bats in the middle of the Yankee order came up, led by switch-hitters Carlos Beltran and Mark Teixera. Snell seemed to pitch timidly to them at first, walking Beltran on four pitches away and staying away to Teixeira, who singled toward the rightfield gap. Kiermaier again came to the rescue, cutting Teixeira’s ball off in the gap, turning a potential RBI double into a relatively harmless single, though Beltran ultimately scored anyway on a pitch in the dirt that got through catcher Hank Conger’s legs. That pitch pushed the count on Alex Rodriguez, one of the Seattle-native Snell’s childhood idols, to 2–2. Rodriguez squared up the next pitch, a 96 mph fastball, hitting it to the top of the wall in left field, but Desmond Jennings got there first to make the catch for the third out. With lesser outfield defense, the Yankees could have put up a big number on Snell in that inning, but Kiermaier and Jennings got him through that shaky first frame.
Snell took over from there, striking out the side in the second. Snell’s first major league strikeout came on a 2–2 curveball that froze veteran lefty Brian McCann, a 73 mph lollipop that started up in McCann’s eyes only to drop into the strike zone at his knees for strike three. Snell then got Starlin Castro to swing through a 95 mph fastball down and in, proof that he was no longer being shy against righties, and, with a full count on Chase Headley, benefited from the Yankee third baseman chasing an outside fastball that missed its target, a mistake Headley appeared to realize half-way through his swing, to end the inning.
The only hit Snell allowed after that first inning was a weak chopper up the middle by Ellsbury in the third, and he required no more extraordinary help from his defense after Kiermaier and Jennings’ efforts in the first. In fact, he returned the favor, stranding Ellsbury after Conger failed to corral a pitch in the dirt that moved Ellsbury to second and stranded Gregorius, who reached on Miller’s error in the fifth.
That first inning aside, and it is very easy to set that inning aside given that it was the first in the major leagues for a kid who had never even been to New York before, it was a very impressive outing for Snell despite its brevity. He threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the 19 men he faced, threw all of his pitches effectively to both lefties and righties, and perhaps most impressively was able to settle down after that rough first and pitched increasingly efficiently as the game progressed.
Nonetheless, the brevity of the outing points to one of the main reasons why Snell will head back to the minors despite his impressive debut. The Rays are clearly trying to limit Snell’s innings early this season in the hope of having him as a permanent part of their rotation in a potential playoff chase in the second half.
Including his three starts at Triple A, Saturday’s outing was Snell’s fourth start this season, and he has yet to throw a pitch in the sixth inning of any of them. Snell came out after five innings and 90 pitches on Saturday and has only surpassed that pitch total once this season. Coming off a career-high 134 innings last year, Snell will likely be limited to something in the range of 160–170 innings this season, 19 1/3 of which he has now used up. One could easily argue that getting five innings of Snell every five days would still be an upgrade on the pitcher expected to replace him as the Rays’ fifth starter next week. That pitcher, 25-year-old righty Erasmo Ramirez, has averaged less than 5 2/3 innings per start in his career and also happened to surrender Gardner’s walkoff on Saturday.
There are service time concerns at play here, as well. However, Snell’s debut on Saturday came late enough in the season that Snell won’t be able to accumulate a full season of service time this year, and thus won’t be able to reach free agency until after the 2022 season. The question now becomes whether or not the Rays can rationalize keeping Snell in the minors past the likely cutoff for Super 2 arbitration eligibility, which typically falls in mid-to-late July.
If the Rays are at all serious about contending this year, they won’t be able to keep Snell in the minors for much longer. However, they lost just fine with Snell in the majors on Saturday, falling to 7–10 on the season and into last place in the American League East, a half-game behind the Yankees. What the Rays do with Snell from here could be a significant indication of, and have a significant impact on, their expectations for the remainder of the season.