Why is Snell still unsigned?

It would be an understatement to say Blake Snell’s free agency has moved at a snail’s pace.

Snell is the reigning National League Cy Young winner, but reportedly is still not close to signing a deal. We are a matter of days away from pitchers and catchers reporting for Spring Training.

Represented by Scott Boras, Snell is apparently after a nine-year deal nearing the $300 million mark. The Yankees, Mets, Giants and Cubs have all consistently been linked with Snell. Signing Marcus Stroman likely took the Yankees out of the sweepstakes, however, and it’s unclear if a deal would make much sense for the Mets.

San Francisco is still searching for their big-name free agent acquisition. There is more space on the pitching staff after Ross Stripling was traded away. But little about Farhan Zaidi’s reign suggests they will stump up what Boras is demanding.

The Cubs have a need in the rotation, too. With Stroman gone and Cody Bellinger still on the market, though, does Chicago want to commit to Snell when they might not be a contender next year?

So, the short answer to Snell still being a free agent is a lack of suitors and a sky-high asking price. Deals for Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and others in recent years show teams are willing to pay big bucks for free agents. Snell doesn’t seem to be garnering the same attention as a free agent – why is that?

Complex track record

Only seven pitchers have won the Cy Young in both leagues. Snell is one of them, along all-time greats Max Scherzer, Roger Clemens, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Gaylord Perry.

Snell’s career is more complicated than the other names listed. They were perennial Cy Young contenders. Snell has not received a Cy Young vote outside of his two years winning the award.

That reflects the range of outcomes with Snell throughout his career and going forward. He just led the Majors in ERA, just as he led the American League in ERA in 2018. He’s twice led the big leagues in hits per nine.

Between his Cy Young-winning campaigns, Snell had a 3.85 ERA over 413.2 innings. He was a little better than a league average pitcher over that period, but not by much.

Other aces can compensate for a down year by eating innings. Yes, this is less of a factor than it was even half a decade ago, but Snell’s innings totals are bound to be on the minds of front offices.

He has reached the 180-inning mark just twice (his two Cy Young years). He pitched 107 in 2019, 128.2 in 2021 and 128 in 2022.

Since the start of 2018, 29 pitchers have thrown more innings than Snell. His 17.8 fWAR over that period is 12th among pitchers with over 700 innings. Only future Hall of Famers Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Scherzer and Gerrit Cole can better Snell’s ERA.

Quality versus quantity

Snell’s free agency represents so many baseball conversations in the 2020s. Even with some not-so-great years between 2019 and 2022, Snell ranks among the sport’s truly elite arms over the last six seasons.

Still, he’s heading into his age-31 season, and it’s not like he’s going to pitch more innings as he ages. His control issues are part of the reason he leaves games early – he’s got the highest walks per nine among pitchers with 700+ innings since the start of 2018.

The strikeout stuff (which also drives up his pitch count) is what makes Snell such a tantalizing prospect for whichever team wins the bidding. He was 98th percentile in whiff rate and 94th percentile in strikeout rate last season. He has struck out 30.9% of hitters or better in each of the last six seasons.

Saga must come to an end

Someone has to sign Snell before Opening Day. The trouble is, the asking price is in Yamamoto territory. It doesn’t seem unreasonable for a two-time Cy Young winner, but that ignores concerns about workload, command and inconsistent performance.

In some ways, Snell’s profile is similar to Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray, who recently received free agent deals of $110 million and $115 million respectively. Snell has a longer track record of success, but both Gausman and Ray hit the market off exceptional walk years.

Gausman has been excellent for the Blue Jays. Ray was a disappointment in Seattle, got injured, and was traded to the Giants this offseason. Snell is probably a better pitcher than Gausman, but it’s easy to see why front offices would be cautious about paying Snell $30 million per season into his late thirties.

Perhaps this ends with a short-term, high-AAV contract. That would seem like a risk for Snell how his production has fluctuated throughout his career.

Instead, the most likely outcome sees this conclude with a contract in the $180 million range packed with opt outs.

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