Blake Snell sat on a couch last June at his father's baseball training facility in his hometown area of Seattle. With his family surrounding him, he anxiously waited for his name to be called in the Major League Baseball draft.
The 6'4" left hander out of Shorewood High School was confident that he would be picked early in the draft – after all, he had just spent his senior year of high school sending hitters back to the bench with his low-to-mid 90's fastball and nasty off- speed pitches. His domination on the mound attracted scouts, and before he knew it he was projected to be picked in the first round of the draft.
As it turned out, Snell and his family did not have to do much waiting on that couch. The Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the first round of the draft as expected, and the immediate feeling was something special for him.
"We all went kind of crazy," he recalled. "I remember getting a Rays hat right away and I got myself ready. I flew out within a week."
Since that day on the couch, Snell hasn't seemed to slow down. The young lefty was immediately assigned to pitch for the Gulf Coast League Rays after he signed with a $684,000 signing bonus, and he showed no signs of difficulty with his transition to professional ball, posting a 3.08 ERA in his 11 games. This year, he has looked even better – much better. In his first three starts for Princeton, he only allowed two hits and no runs – his one start without a hit was cut short because of a rain delay. In his fourth start, he finally allowed a run, but his ERA stands at 0.51.
Princeton manager Michael Johns has been impressed with the job Snell has done this season and the progress that he has made. "Snell has been our frontline guy," he said. "His fastball is really good and he's throwing for strikes with confidence."
Snell's fastball has been his most effective pitch this season, and it wouldn't be surprising if he just kept going with it. He has struck out 24 batters in only 17.2 innings pitched.
"If my fastball keeps working, I'm going to keep using it," Snell explained. "If I need my off-speed then I will start to use it more."
Besides his fastball, Snell also has a slider, changeup, and curveball. Only recently has he incorporated the slider, and he has been mixing up his pitches a bit during games in order to get more comfortable with them.
"I developed my slider really quick," he said. "I like my slider and my changeup, but my curveball has been on too."
The 19-year old southpaw's quick adaptation to a new pitch is just one example of how much he has picked up in a very short period of time. Just a year ago, he was facing high school batters and now he is breezing through Appalachian League lineups featuring some of the top draft picks in professional baseball. He gives credit to his father Dave, who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants in 1982 and pitched for several years in the minor leagues.
"My dad really helped me and I have gotten to where I am because of him," he said. "He especially helped me with my pitching during the offseason as I prepared to come here."
Snell's preparation did not end in the off-season, and he works throughout the week to stay in shape and study up on his next opponent. He runs before every game that he is not pitching in, and during games he sits in the stands behind home plate. Dressed in a polo shirt and blue jeans, he sits a few rows up with a computer.
"It is kind of a cheat sheet to look at who their main hitters are and which guys are struggling, and it helps me on how to get them out," he said. "If one guy loves an outside fastball, I'll know to throw inside to him. If he can't hit an off-speed pitch, then I'll know to throw him an off-speed pitch."
As one of the Rays' top prospects, the organization will be sure to keep a close eye on Snell throughout the rest of the season. One thing the team wants to see out of him is more innings, and that requires him to control his pitch count. At the rookie level, pitch counts are often set before the game and cannot be modified regardless of how well the pitcher is throwing. Snell has pitched five innings twice this season.
"We obviously want him to go deeper into games," said Johns. "We would like to see him go five or six innings. Once he learns how to control his pitch count, he will be even better."
When the pitch count is the only issue the organization is worried about in a pitcher, it is a pretty good indicator of how well things are going for him. His pitches are working, he is striking everybody out, and he rarely gives up a hit. All signs are pointing in the right direction for the Seattle native. At his young age, the sky is the limit.
Matt Tracy is the Princeton beat writer for Rays Digest. You can follow him on Twitter at @matthewtracy.
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