If you asked Pirates fans of their opinion of Ian Snell following the 2007 season, you would probably hear an “oooh”. If you asked the same question following the 2008 season, you’d get a response similar to a Lynard Snynard song lyric: “Oooh that smell”.
Snell broke out in 2007 with a 3.76 ERA and 177 strikeouts in 208 innings pitched. Heading in to the 2008 season he was looked at as the ace of the Pirates staff, with hopes of improving on his numbers the season before. Snell did the exact opposite. In 164.1 innings pitched in the 2008 season, Snell posted a 5.42 ERA and 135 strikeouts, a far cry from his 2007 success.
Looking at Snell’s 2008 numbers, we see that he had a .355 BABIP, up from his .317 average in his career leading up to the 2008 season. This drastic increase either suggests that Snell was incredibly unlucky in 2008, or that there was something wrong, making his pitches extremely easy to hit for opposing batters. Which situation is the case with Snell in 2008?
To figure this out, let’s take a look at Snell’s ratios. Snell’s career numbers before the 2008 season yielded a 7.81 K/9 ratio, a 3.52 BB/9 ratio, and a 1.17 HR/9 ratio. In 2008 Snell posted similar strikeout and home run ratios, but saw his walks increase substantially to a 4.87 BB/9 ratio. Furthermore, Snell’s ground ball ratio dropped eight percent from 2007 to 2008, and his line drive ratio increased over eight percent.
The increased walks and the harder hit balls both suggest that Snell wasn’t a victim of poor luck with his increased BABIP. The increased walks show a lack of control compared to the previous seasons, while the increased line drive and decreased ground balls suggest the hitters were having an easier time making good contact on his pitches. Both of these stats suggest that Snell’s issues were mechanical, with a possible issue of the Pirates pitcher missing his spots.
Enter Joe Kerrigan.
The Pirates hired Joe Kerrigan in the offseason to help turn around a pitching staff that ranked as one of the worst in the majors last season. Kerrigan was the pitching coach for Pedro Martinez when Pedro was with the Expos in the early 90s, and again in the late 90s when Pedro had his best seasons in Boston. Kerrigan is regarded as a great pitching coach, who emphasizes pitching inside, better control, and better pre-game preparation for the opposing hitters. The big test for Kerrigan will be helping Snell return to 2007 form.
Kerrigan’s impact has already been seen on the Pirates rotation. In their first 15 games last season, the Pirates compiled a 4.85 ERA, on their way to a 5.08 ERA for the season. In their first 15 games this season, the Pirates have a 3.00 ERA, with a quality start in 10 of their first 15 games.
The results for Snell have been just as encouraging. Snell struggled in his first start of the season, allowing six earned runs in four innings, and walking three batters. Since then he’s made two starts, allowing two earned runs in 13 innings, with six walks. Snell’s ground ball ratio hasn’t returned to the pre-2008 numbers, but his line drive ratio has dropped back to normal. His BABIP this season is also down to his career norm before 2008. The only concern is that his walk rate is at 4.8, although when taking out the first game, it looks better with a 4.15 BB/9 ratio.
The sample size is small, but the early indications are that Joe Kerrigan has “fixed” whatever was wrong with Ian Snell in 2008. If the last two starts by Snell are an example of what we will see for the remainder of the season, the fans in Pittsburgh will be watching Ian Snell pitch with a lot of “ooohs”, rather than wondering what that smell is surrounding the pitchers mound.