The San Diego Padres’ skid continued on Wednesday afternoon, with a loss against the Colorado Rockies ensuring a series sweep. The Padres, now 2-8 over their last 10 games, haven’t won a series outright since taking two of three from the Houston Astros over Memorial Day weekend. Arguably the most concerning aspect of Wednesday’s loss, as it pertains to the Padres’ championship aspirations, was another lackluster outing from left-handed starter Blake Snell.
When the Padres acquired Snell over the offseason, they hoped he would be able to front their rotation. Instead, he entered Wednesday with a 4.97 ERA (74 ERA+) and a 2.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the season. Those numbers won’t look better come Thursday morning, as he allowed seven runs on nine hits and two walks over 3 1/3 innings. He managed to strike out just one of the 21 batters he faced.
Wednesday marked the third time in Snell’s last five starts that he’s yielded at least five runs. That statistic alone would be worrisome, but it’s worse considering that those appearances have come against the Astros, Rockies, and the Milwaukee Brewers; the Astros have had the majors’ best offense, per the park-adjusted wRC+ metric, while the Brewers and the Rockies rank in the bottom five of the majors.
Whenever a pitcher is struggling, it’s fair to assume that command is partially to blame. That’s true of Snell, who had thrown a career-worst 59.6 percent of his pitches for strikes heading into his start against the Rockies.
“I don’t know if it’s a comfort deal or what it is,” manager Jayce Tingler recently told reporters, including The Athletic’s Dennis Lin.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete, and he’s got the ability to repeat (his delivery). I think he’s just kind of trying to battle to find that, whether that’s the release point, whether that’s something in the delivery. He’s just still working through it, and I’m confident it’s gonna happen. I know it’s gonna happen. But right now, he’s kind of grinding to find it.”
Snell’s sloppy geography makes it difficult to discern what is by design and what is by sheer randomness, but it’s worth noting that he does appear to have altered his approach from last season. Not in terms of pitch mix — that’s mostly the same — but in terms of pitch location.
Whereas last season 24 percent of Snell’s fastballs were located in the lower half of the zone, this year he’s upped that frequency to over 42 percent. The results haven’t been pleasant, as opponents are hitting .324 with a .411 isolated slugging on fastballs located in the lower half; conversely, they’re hitting .288 with a .287 isolated slugging on elevated fastballs. Neither split is great, but the shape of his fastball, with more than 18 inches of induced vertical break, suggests it should be thrown up, where its spin can jump over lumber by virtue of the optical illusion its movement creates.
Of course, all of that is easier said than done for a pitcher who appears to be battling himself, physically and perhaps mentally.
If there is hope for the Padres, it’s that Snell has shown recent glimpses of righting the ship. In his first start in June, he held the New York Mets to a hit and a walk over seven shutout frames. Snell’s second crack at the Mets a week later didn’t go as well (he allowed three runs on five hits and three walks in four innings), but at least he was first able to remind the Padres of what they thought they were getting in December.
For now, it seems, that’ll have to do.