Fantasy Baseball Debate: Gerrit Cole vs. Blake Snell

Gerrit Cole and Blake Snell are both AL Cy Young contenders, but who is the better pick in fantasy leagues?
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The SI.com Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Shapiro and Michael Beller debate two aces coming off breakout seasons: Gerrit Cole and Blake Snell.

Michael Shapiro makes the case for Cole over Snell…

Trevor Bauer’s bombast aside, Blake Snell was a worthy Cy Young winner in 2018. The 23-year-old lefty led the American League in wins and ERA, racking up 221 strikeouts in just more than 180 innings. As Chris Sale sat much of September and Bauer nursed a nasty leg injury, Snell rose in an elite group of AL starters, outlasting Justin Verlander in the process. It was an impressive campaign to be sure, but can we guarantee Snell will repeat his Cy Young performance and remain an elite fantasy starter in 2019? I remain skeptical.

Snell’s final two months last year were legendary. He went 9-0 in 11 starts, fanning 87 batters in 61 2/3 innings. He allowed just three earned runs in August and five in September, totaling a 1.17 ERA in that time. Snell’s stretch run was among the best in recent memory, reminiscent of Jake Arrieta’s 2015. Yet, looking forward to 2019, it may be foolish to trust two months over Snell’s previous two-plus seasons.

Snell made 43 career starts before 2018, amassing a 3.83 ERA, 1.45 WHIP and 217 strikeouts in 218 innings. In the first four months of 2018, Snell struck out 134 batters in 119 innings along with a 2.27 ERA. It’s an impressive 2.5-year sample, but not quite indicative of a perennial Cy Young candidate. Snell’s August and September doesn’t guarantee future dominance.

Gerrit Cole’s 2018, meanwhile, provides a more balanced profile of a pitcher who will compete for multiple Cy Young awards. He was a durable ace all season, striking out at least 40 batters in six straight months. He was one of eight pitchers to top 200 innings and rack up more than 200 strikeouts. The Rays are a chic playoff pick after last year’s 90-win campaign, but Cole is a better bet to rack up wins on a potential 100-win juggernaut in Houston. Cole’s counting stats should outpace Snell’s, headlined by a likely strikeout disparity. As Tampa continues to embrace the Opener, Snell could end the year closer to 150 innings than 200, and that would drag down his fantasy value.

Cole also holds the edge in a number of efficiency metrics. He ranked ahead of Snell in FIP and WAR in 2018, while also leading all starters in strikeouts per nine innings. Snell also had issues with the free pass, walking 3.19 times per nine innings, the 15th-highest mark in the majors. Cole, on the other hand, checked in under three walks per nine. Players registered hard contact at a greater rate against Snell, while Cole induced more soft contact. The numbers don’t lie.

We shouldn’t discredit Snell’s run at the end of 2018. It was a virtuoso two-month stretch, and fully worthy of a Cy Young. However, as we turn the page to 2019, it’s best to leave our nostalgia-tinted glasses in the past. It’s time to look forward, Beller, and the choice is clear. Cole could be a top five fantasy starter in 2018. Snell is more likely to fade toward the middle of the top-tier.

Michael Beller makes the case for Snell over Cole…

Can I just link to this and call it a day?

No? OK, fine. The following is a comprehensive list of every pitcher in MLB history to post an ERA+ of 200 or better (meaning 100% better than league-average, adjusted to ballpark) and strikeout rate north of 30% over at least 180 innings in his age-25 season or earlier.

Pedro Martinez
Blake Snell

That’s it. Those are the only pitchers who have ever hit each of those thresholds by age 25.

What if we lower the ERA+ mark? After all, an ERA+ of 200 is ridiculous. There have only been 43 such seasons in MLB history. What if we drop it to say, 180? Then what does our list look like?

Martinez
Snell
Johan Santana

Wow, still a pretty short list. 160?

Martinez
Snell
Santana

Ummmm, 140?

Martinez
Snell
Santana

Alright, I think we can stop there. The point is that few pitchers had a season like Snell did last season at the age he was last season. The only one who checked all three impressive benchmarks that speak to overall dominance is an inner-circle Hall of Famer. The other one who came close was one of the best pitchers of his era who had a monster peak that included two Cy Young Awards, and two more top-three finishes. I’d say Snell finds himself in good company going into his age-26 season.

Santana may not have reached the career heights expected of him after that magical 2004 season, his breakout campaign in which he won his first Cy Young. But we’re not necessarily worried about his full career arc, at least for our purposes here. This is a debate about 2019, not 2019 through 2025. Here are the lines Martinez and Santana put up in the seasons after the ones that got them into this column.

Martinez: 2.89 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 251 strikeouts, 26.4% strikeout rate, 163 ERA+
Santana: 2.77 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 238 strikeouts, 26.2% strikeout rate, 155 ERA+

Here’s what Martinez and Santana did over the following four seasons, beginning witht eh one referenced above.

Martinez: 2.27 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 1,011 strikeouts, 33.1% strikeout rate, 214 ERA+
Santana: 2.87 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 924 strikeouts, 25.1% strikeout rate, 152 ERA+

Here’s the second point. When a pitcher reaches a level that Snell did last year, he typically stays there for a while. If you’ve read anything about Snell this winter regarding his 2019 fantasy value, you’ve certainly come across the specter of regression. People making that argument will point to two stats in particular: a .241 BABIP and 88% strand rate. Those are, admittedly, fortunate. I don’t care how much soft contact you induce, how many guys you strike out, or how good your bullpen is, a .241 BABIP and 88% strand rate are unsustainable numbers.

Here’s the major problem with that, though. It ignores the fact that Snell is a human and not some baseball automaton. He made a major change in pitch mix last season, doubling the use of his curveball from 2017 while cutting back a bit on his four-seamer, changeup and slider. The result? The curveball was good for a whiff rate of 25.2%, while the slider and change were less predictable than in the past, and also increased a couple of percentage points in whiff rate. Gee, do you think it’s possible that we should credit a former first-round pick for the obvious, approach-based growth he has made, and not just scream “REGRESSION” in his face? I do.

Even if we grant that a larger share of baserunners against Snell will score this season, we can’t ignore a few other key facts. The first is that, at 26 years old and with his pedigree, there’s a better chance that Snell is getting better, not remaining stagnant. The second is that he didn’t merely squeak past the 200 ERA+ threshold. He crushed it, posting an ERA+ of 219. Remember, Santana had an ERA+ of (very exaggerated voice) just 182 in his breakout season. You know who’s never had an ERA+ season of 180 or better? Max Scherzer. Justin Verlander. Corey Kluber has had one. Snell’s got a 200 ERA+ to his name, and he’s 26 years old. You’re telling me you don’t want to bet on the come? This might not be the game for you, then.