November is the time to indulge in rumor season.
It’s all we have. Activity starts to pick up closer to the Winter Meetings in early December. For now, all we have is possibilities.
The Phillies have made it clear that they are in the market for a starting pitcher. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said that they prefer to retain Aaron Nola over other options, but not everything a baseball executive says at this time of year should be taken at face value.
They will be linked to other top pitchers. That’s just how it works. Jon Morosi of MLB Network reported that the Phillies have interest in Sonny Gray. Don’t be surprised to hear about the Phillies having interest in Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Jordan Montgomery, Eduardo Rodriguez, Marcus Stroman and others.
One name, Blake Snell, was purposely left out. That’s because one prominent national baseball writer is pushing the narrative that the Phillies prefer Snell over Nola.
This is the one that has me shaking my head.
USA Today’s Bob Nightengale has linked Snell to the Phillies multiple times. Nightengale reported last Sunday that multiple GMs predict that Snell will sign with the Phillies. He wrote yesterday that the Phillies are “favorites” to sign Snell.
A typical “Phillies are interested in Snell” report would suffice, but it’s really hard to believe that the Phillies see him as their best option to fill a void at the top of the rotation.
Among the top four of Nola, Snell, Yamamoto and Montgomery, Snell is the worst fit for the Phillies.
Snell, 30, will likely win his second Cy Young Award later this week. He was excellent in 2023, pitching to a 2.25 ERA across 32 starts for the Padres.
Snell finished second only to Spencer Strider in strikeouts-per-nine-innings at 11.70, but also had the highest walks-per-nine innings among qualified starters at 4.95. Taijuan Walker finished with the sixth-highest walks-per-nine at 3.70.
The best way to explain his success in 2023 is through his excellence with runners on. With men on, opposing hitters batted .174 with a .528 OPS. With runners in scoring position, the numbers drop to .152 with a .470 OPS. Hitters batted .289 with an .816 OPS with runners on against Nola in 2023. Advantage Snell.
Snell’s most desirable quality is his ability to get righties and lefties out. It’s baffling to think that some managers continue to use platoons against Snell. Righties (.176/.284/.281) fared worse against Snell than lefties (.204/.339/.311) in 2023.
Executing pitches in tight spots and getting hitters on both sides of the plate out are what aces do, but there’s not much else about Snell that sticks out.
The knock on Snell is his inability to rack up an innings total on par with some of the other top pitchers in the game. Snell will likely win the Cy Young, but 23 pitchers threw more innings over the course of the season than Snell.
The two other NL finalists, Logan Webb and Zac Gallen, threw at least 210 innings in 2023. Webb recorded 108 more outs than Snell. Gallen recorded 90 more outs than Snell.
When outsiders compare seasons between the best starting pitchers in the sport, they’ll usually start with ERA and have the innings total be a secondary measurement of success. Maybe it’s time to reverse that thinking and start with innings pitched and use ERA as a baseline. If you throw 220 innings, but have a 4.50 ERA, you’re probably not good enough to win the Cy Young. But if you’re at 220 innings with a 3.50 ERA, you’re a much better candidate than the guy with 170 innings and a 2.10 ERA.
It’s a matter of value. If you’re skeptical, consider this. In his likely second Cy Young Award season, Snell finished 2023 with 4.1 FanGraphs wins above replacement or fWAR. Nola, in the worst season of his career, finished 2023 with 3.9 fWAR.
With the prevalence of strict reliever usage patters, roster limits on pitchers and minor league option limits, durable starters are more important than ever. Snell reached 180 innings in 2023, a relatively good number in today’s game. The issue is that he has eclipsed an innings total above 130 innings twice in his career. Both years were Cy Young campaigns.
His agent Scott Boras will tout the lack of mileage on Snell’s left arm. Maybe one team will convince themselves that they can get more out of Snell and pay over $200 million for his services.
It would be shocking if that team ended up being the Phillies, despite what the rumors say.
For years, they have enjoyed the advantage of having two of the best workhorses in baseball at the top of the rotation.
It’s fair to wonder if Nola, who has thrown 1,422 innings for the Phillies over the last nine years, can continue being that guy for the next six or seven years, but any team that signs him can feel relatively confident that they are getting a pitcher who will make just about every start for the next two or three years.
Throughout his tenure with the Phillies, Dave Dombrowski has prioritized four things above all else. One is star position player talent, two is high end velocity/stuff in the bullpen, the third is an infusion of youth and athleticism up the middle and the fourth is innings certainty along with a strong 1-2 out of the rotation.
The Phillies went into last year’s offseason looking for a middle-of-the-rotation arm that had a better track record of durability than Zach Eflin. They paid much more than expected at four years, $72 million for Walker, but that signaled to the industry just how much the Phillies valued having a pitcher who could eat innings. Despite Walker’s up-and-down year, he did throw 172 2/3 innings and finish with 2.5 fWAR in 2023.
Despite having five starters in the rotation, the Phillies traded one of their top prospects in Hao-Yu Lee for Michael Lorenzen at this year’s deadline so that the team could go to a six-man rotation and have an extra arm just in case an injury popped up. He didn’t pitch well following the no-hitter, but he did fill a need when Ranger Suárez missed time at the end of the season with a hamstring injury.
The Phillies will have interest and they will do their due diligence on Snell, but considering all of the above as well as the luxury tax implications of signing Snell, it’s really hard to see the Phillies picking Snell over other options.
Since Snell has a qualifying offer attached to him and the Phillies will pay the luxury tax in 2023, the team must surrender a second and fifth-round pick along with one million dollars in international bonus pool money for the 2025 signing period (about one-fifth of the team’s total pool). If the Phillies sign Snell and let Nola walk, they will recoup a draft pick after the fourth round, so it cancels out that fifth-round pick the team must surrender.
Yamamoto and Montgomery do not have qualifying offers attached. It’s a steep price to pay and considering the Phillies surrendered seven draft picks and $3.5 million in international bonus pool money over the last six years to sign qualified free agents, it may be wise to take a break this year.
Snell is also projected to earn more in free agency than Nola and Montgomery. Jon Heyman of the New York Post floated a number around $250 million.
Inflation in the free agent starting pitching market is real, but that much money for a pitcher that doesn’t have a track record of being a workhorse is insane.
Snell has thrown at least seven innings in 23 career starts. Roy Halladay threw at least seven innings 28 times for the Phillies in 2010.
The bar for what an ace is has dropped considerably over the past decade. Maybe it’s for the better that teams expect less out of their top starters. There is a cost to consistently throwing over 200 innings for years at a time. Halladay’s struggles with pain and addiction is proof that baseball should not revert to its past ways of handling pitchers.
But there’s a balance that works for both fans and players and the sport has seemingly found that in the ace pitcher that averages around 170 innings and pitches around 200 innings in their best seasons.
That’s the standard for an ace pitcher in this era and Snell has repeatedly failed to reach that. Yet it seems like he will get paid like a pitcher who embodies the standard.
Maybe I will be terribly wrong and Snell is the next Randy Johnson. What matters is what Dombrowski, the executive who once traded Johnson, thinks is the right thing to do.
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