The first time Blake Snell went from Durham to the Major Leagues and back again, he was ready for it.
That was in April 2016 when the Tampa Bay Rays called up Snell, their highly-touted lefthander, to make a spot start at Yankee Stadium.
Snell pitched well but knew he was on his way back to the Triple-A Bulls for more work.
Two months later, he was recalled to Tampa Bay and spent the rest of the season in the Rays starting rotation.
This week, though, Snell has returned to Durham once again under different circumstances.
When he makes his first start Triple-A start in nearly a calendar year Friday night at Durham Bulls Athletic Park against Gwinnett, Snell is looking to get his career back on track after struggling with Tampa Bay this season.
“He needs to come down and work on his command,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “He needs to learn how to pitch deep into ballgames.”
The 24-year-old Snell admits that’s exactly what he needs to do.
“Pitch deep into the game,” Snell said of his main goal for this stint in Durham.
Here’s how he plans to accomplish it.
“Consistency in throwing strikes,” Snell said Thursday night. “And that’s what I plan on doing.”
He’s proven he can do that in the minor leagues. In 2015, he was named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year when he recorded 163 strikeouts in 134 innings split between Single-A Port Charlotte, Double-A Montgomery and the Bulls. He walked only 51 batters, pitching to a 1.14 ERA while compiling a 15-4 record.
In his big league debut against the New York Yankees, Snell pitched just five innings while striking out six and allowing two hits and one run. That’s nice enough work but he needed 90 pitches to finish those innings which showed he needed to be more efficient.
While going 6-8 with a 3.54 ERA over 19 starts with Tampa Bay last season, Snell struck out 98 and walked just 51 batters. His combination of four pitches — the four-seam baseball, curveball, slider and cutter — were good enough to consistently get big league hitters out.
Still he completed six innings just five times in his 19 starts. Three times he needed more than 100 pitches to get through five innings without lasting all the way through the sixth inning.
This season, he made eight starts with Tampa Bay but is 0-4 with a 4.71 ERA. He went 6 2/3 innings in his first outing of the season back on April 6 against Toronto but failed to get through the sixth inning again.
He returns to Durham having pitched 42 innings with Tampa Bay, striking out 34 with 25 walks. Those ratios aren’t even up to his rookie season performance last summer.
The good thing about the situation, Sandberg said, is that Snell knows what he needs to do and has the right mindset to get the work done while he’s back with the Bulls.
“The credit to Blake Snell is he is coming down with a tremendous attitude,” Sandberg said. “He knows he needs to come down here, find some confidence, find some success. He needs to work.He’s got a lot of room to grow and a lot to work to do to continue to build off what he’s done in the past and what he didn’t do in the big leagues this year.”
While battling to find command of his pitches with Tampa Bay this season, Snell’s offerings were hit harder than last year. He allowed six home runs in eight starts this season after allowing just five in his 19 starts in 2016.
Big leaguers managed just two hits on 46 swings against his cut fastball last season for a .043 average.
This season, they’re three of seven against his cutter, a .429 average.
On the other hand, batters are hitting .133 against his slider (four of 30) this season after going 10 of 34 (.294) in 2016.
So he’s back in Durham aiming to get his mind and his pitching right to put his career back on the fast track.
“Whether it’s pressure at the big league level, just trying to do too much or trying to find himself,” Sandberg said, “whatever it is, this allows him to take a little breath in the minor leagues and start over. Get with (Bulls pitching coach) Kyle Snyder and work on a few things. But it’s going to come down to fastball command and pitching deep into ball games.”
Since Tampa Bay sent him down, Snell has been working with Snyder during side sessions. He’s confident his road back to the big leagues will feature a positive first step on Friday night.
“I’ve been working on it with Snyder so I feel really comfortable about it,” Snell said, “and I’m excited for tomorrow.”