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Tigers vs. Rays Preview: Is Blake Snell now Tampa Bay’s ace?

Snell will face Michael Fulmer in what might be the best pitching matchup we have seen so far this season.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Does anyone remember a few years ago, when Major League Baseball ran their ill-conceived “Ace-Off” advertisements? No? Just me? Anyway, the ads were a play on the good bad movie Face/Off, and were meant to promote great upcoming pitching matchups. The ads (thankfully) went by the wayside, and MLB hasn’t come up with a great way to promote said matchups since then.

Well, this would be one of those games. Tigers ace Michael Fulmer will take the ball on Wednesday with a chance to deliver his team their first series win since a mid-April home series sweep against the Baltimore Orioles. To do so, he will have to go through Blake Snell, who seems to have taken a huge step forward in 2018. The 25-year-old Snell has honed his command while simultaneously developing more of a strikeout touch, and finally seems to have tapped into the immense potential Tampa saw when they drafted him 52nd overall in 2011.

We already know that Fulmer is the top dog on Detroit’s staff, but it’s worth the early question: is Snell now Tampa’s ace? Opening Day starter Chris Archer looked the part on Tuesday evening, but is currently working on his third consecutive year with an ERA above 4.00. His peripherals suggest more is there, but at 29, he can’t use youth as an excuse anymore.

It’s too early to tell whether Snell will eventually usurp Archer atop the Rays’ rotation. But if we were choosing... I might rather face Archer than the young lefty at this point.

Tampa Bay Rays (13-15) at Detroit Tigers (12-16)

Time/Place: 1:10 p.m., Comerica Park
SB Nation site: DRaysBay
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: LHP Blake Snell (4-1, 2.52 ERA) vs. RHP Michael Fulmer (1-2, 2.76 ERA)

Game 29 Pitching Matchup

Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Pitcher IP K% BB% FIP fWAR
Snell 35.2 29.9 8.0 2.89 1.0
Fulmer 29.1 18.0 5.7 3.92 0.5

As mentioned above, Blake Snell has suddenly become Blake F***in’ Snell in 2018. The main reasons why are easy to identify; he is commanding the zone better, throwing a few more strikes, and walking fewer hitters than last season. “He just got better” would be an easy explanation for why the 25-year-old lefty is currently lighting the American League on fire.

There isn’t a neon sign indicating anything else that changed in Snell’s profile. He is throwing a bit harder, now averaging 95.7 miles per hour with his four-seam fastball. His other pitches are also coming in a bit hotter than before, including a slider averaging 87.7 mph. Both his slider and curveball are moving a bit more too, including a bit more downward bite than he previously displayed.

The only other slight change appears to be with Snell’s sequencing. If anything, he has gotten more predictable this year, throwing more fastballs when behind and off-speed pitches when ahead. While this might not work with many pitchers, Snell has the type of raw stuff that can play with this “here it is, hit it” approach. He’s still relatively unpredictable when he gets ahead — he uses the fastball, slider, and curve nearly equally in two-strike counts — and has been burying hitters when they get behind in the count.

Key matchup: Michael Fulmer vs. pitch classification

Let’s just get the question out there: is Michael Fulmer throwing a curveball? Ben Palmer at Pitcher List seems to think so, and cites Brooks Baseball (I’m assuming) when he says that Fulmer is throwing the hammer over eight percent of the time. With a 16.7 percent whiff rate, it would appear Fulmer is developing a solid new pitch.

I’m skeptical, though. For one, Brooks has all of those curves coming in one game, Detroit’s win over the Kansas City Royals on April 20.

There also appears to be little velocity and movement difference between the supposed curveball and the slider. Statcast hasn’t even picked up on a curveball, and classified all of those benders as sliders. It’s still an effective pitch, of course — opponents are hitting .130 against the slider and whiffing nearly 20 percent of the time this season. However, it doesn’t appear to be anything new and exciting, just the same dominant Michael Fulmer we’re used to seeing already.


Fulmer cruises and the Tigers clinch a series win.

Gameday reading