Left-handed pitcher Blake Snell, who joined the Durham Bulls in late July, was named the Minor League Player of the Year by USA Today on Wednesday.
He is the fourth Durham Bulls player to win the award, joining outfielder Andruw Jones (1996), left-handed pitcher David Price (2008) and right-handed pitcher Jeremy Hellickson (2010).
Snell, 22, was a first-round pick in the 2011 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays out of Shorewood High in Shoreline, Wash., the 52nd player taken overall. He made a meteoric rise through the Rays organization this summer, pitching on the Class A-Advanced, Double-A and Triple-A levels and compiling a combined record of 15-4 with a 1.41 ERA in 25 appearances, 23 of them starts.
The 6-foot-4, 180-pounder began the season at Class A-Advanced Charlotte (Fla.) in the Florida State League and reeled off 21 scoreless innings in four games (two starts) before being promoted to Double-A Montgomery in the Southern League, where he extended his scoreless streak to 46 innings.
Snell was promoted to Triple-A Durham on July 24 and proceeded to go 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA in nine starts. His 1.41 cumulative ERA is the lowest by any minor league pitcher (minimum 115 innings) since Justin Verlander recorded a 1.29 in 2005. It was also the lowest ever by any Rays minor-leaguer, beating the mark of 1.77 (minimum 130 innings) set by Dylan Floro, who is still with the team, in 2013.
His fourth start with the Bulls may have been Snell’s most masterful. In five innings against the Louisville Bats on Aug. 9, he did not give up a hit, walked two and struck out nine, his Triple-A high. Snell left after five innings because the Rays had told him he would not pitch more than five innings in any Triple-A outing to guard against overwork.
“He was well aware of the situation,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “His first five starts, he knew he was coming out of the game no matter what. My explanation to him was, ‘There’s a bigger picture here, don’t forget about the bigger picture.’ He would say, ‘Yep, I understand.’”
Sandberg said later that he began to ask Snell if he wanted to pitch another inning.
“I made sure I asked him how he felt, because I didn’t want him to lose that edge,” Sandberg said. “A guy as dominant as he was needs to pitch into the seventh inning. So as frustrating as it was, I think he understood the big picture.”
Snell told USA Today that his maturation led to this season.
“It’s had a lot to do with growing up,” Snell said. “I understood that I could be a lot better than I had been. I was getting confidence that the stuff I had could play at any level. It was really about believing in what I was doing and having the confidence in the pitches I was throwing.”
From the time he joined the Bulls through the season’s end, Snell led the International League in opponents’ batting average (.187) and ranked second in wins (6), ERA (1.83) and strikeouts (57). In nine starts, he allowed one earned run or fewer eight times.
His overall numbers were even more spectacular. He led all minor league pitchers in opponents’ average (.182), tied for third in wins (15) and strikeouts (163 in 134 innings), and ranked ninth in WHIP (1.02 walks and hits allowed per inning pitched). During his 23 starts, he allowed one earned run or fewer 19 times and held his opponent scoreless eight times.
Sandberg also managed Snell during the previous two seasons at Class-A Bowling Green and at Montgomery.
“I saw a young kid who needed to mature a little bit but was maturing,” Sandberg said. “Sleep habits, work habits, eating habits – he was able to put it all together this year and advance three levels. The maturity is not only the age but the physical and mental maturity that allows a 22-year-old to come up to Triple-A and dominate.
“On the mound, Blake showed me better maturity and a more athletic, refined delivery that allowed him to repeat his release point and command the strike zone with all four of his pitches.”
Snell’s repertoire includes a mid- to upper-90s fastball, curve, slider and change-up.
“We’re talking about an electric fastball,” Sandberg said, “and he can create some angles when he needs to when he throws down in the zone. He’s also able to elevate and bring his off-speed pitches into play. On top of that, he’s left-handed.”
Snell is ranked as the Rays’ No. 1 pitching prospect and the No. 44 prospect overall, according to MLB.com. Sandberg said Snell is the best pitching prospect he’s ever seen.
“From what I saw this year, he’s definitely major-league ready,” Sandberg said.
He is also one of two finalists for Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award, which will be announced next week.