If there's one thing that's going to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates from losing 100 games this year. It's not their offense. The offense will likely not be nearly as terrible as people are expecting (I mean, it's impossible for a team to only score 300 runs in a year), but it's not going to be great. No, the difference should be the rotation. Last year's rotation was one of the worst in franchise history, but the Pirates shed a lot of dead weight and I don't think it's possible for Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny to be worse. Since the rotation is the most important part of the team this year, I'm going to take a close look at each of the pitchers that's in the mix for a rotation spot this spring. Today we're going to start where all discussion about the rotation has to start this year: with Ian Snell.
I've spent a good part of this offseason wondering what was wrong with Snell last year. You might remember that back in October I went back and took a look at his pitch selection to begin at-bats in light of his statement that watching CC Sabathia gave him the idea to set hitters up with his fastball. I thought I found some preliminary evidence at the time that seemed to show that he pitched better at the end of the year by starting more hitters off with fastballs. As it turns out, I did some more digging and found that in 2007 (when he was good), his fastball percentages were down across the board when compared to 2008, even on the first pitch.
I know that's the opposite of what I was trying to prove in October, but it's not exactly counter-intuitive. When Charlie and I took some time to look at the rotation after the season, this is what he had to say about Snell:
There isn't anything wrong with his stuff, but I often fail to see the logic in the pitches he chooses. He often throws like he's playing "swing the sledgehammer, ring the bell" at a carnival--as if the point is to show how tough he is, rather than to make outs. He also struggled not only with his control, but with his command; he seemed to give up a whole lot of hits on pitches that were in slightly the wrong location. He can still be a successful starter, but he needs coaching.
The difference in Snell down the stretch wasn't that he was doing a better job because he was setting hitters up with fastballs; the difference was that he was pitching. I don't know what the problem was last year. I don't think there's any question that his elbowseemed to be bothering him for a good part of the season. On June 22nd, his average fastball was just under 92 mph and he topped out at 93.8. On September 19th, he averaged 92.5 and topped out at almost 95. I guess there are a lot of things that could explain that, but I'm going with the elbow problem.
So what happened? I'm guessing that he lost his flow with the injury, started overthrowing to get it back, and never had anyone put him back on track until he watched CC pitch. When the Pirates hired Joe Kerrigan, they seemed to indicate that they wanted Kerrigan because he's known for holing himself up with film and helping pitchers plan each start out, as opposed to Andrews who focused mostly on mechanical stuff. It seems to me (and I'm really reading between the lines here) that that points almost directly at Snell.
So ... is that it? I mean, can Snell's drop from a 3.76 ERA and a 1.33 WHIP to a 5.42 ERA and a 1.77 WHIP really all be in how he approaches hitters? I was going to do a deeper analysis and go more into the pitch data, but I'm just not entirely positive it's necessary. We're not looking at a guy who's stuff disappeared over night like Oliver Perez. We're not looking at a guy who always had a suspect approach like Kip Wells. The pieces were all there in various forms last year for Snell, but he didn't manage to put them together until the end of the year. With Kerrigan's help (if he's willing to accept it), I think Snell can be a good pitcher again.