Talking Ian Snell

"Pittsburgh’s Ian Snell. Teams that have talked to the Pirates say they’re in the midst of a monstrous internal debate about whether they’d be willing to at least dangle Snell, a major 26-year-old talent who had more quality starts this year (22) than Santana or Roy Oswalt and a better strikeout rate (7.66 per 9 innings) than Carlos Zambrano or Ben Sheets." — Jason Stark, ESPN, Nov 21

When I first read Stark’s comment earlier this week I wasn’t surprised to see the Pirates front office was without a cohesive rebuilding plan or, if they did have one and dealing Snell wasn’t a part of the rebuilding process, then they were obviously lacking leadership.

Over the last six days I’ve received a few anonymous emails on Snell and one of them was stuffed with pitch and statistical data that would blow the average fan out of the water. For instance..

Between 2005 and 2007, there were 170 MLB pitching performances where at least 15 starts were made in one year and the pitcher was between the ages of 23-27. Snell had two of those performances.. one in 2006 and one in 2007.

The median xERA (expected ERA – a forward looking stat – based Dwight Gill’s version he used with the Indians) of all 170 performances was 4.23 over 28,731 innings. Snell averaged 4.43, or was 5% below average. However in 2007, Snell’s 3.93 xERA was 7% better than the median and 21% better than his 4.97 xERA in 2006.

Now, because the starting pitching free agent market is so thin this year there is quite a seller’s market for quality pitchers. To give you an idea of what I mean, nearly 25% of the best 34 performances (top 20% of the 170 overall) were performed by five names you’ve heard as being potentially available in the media: Scott Kazmir, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Erik Bedard, and Dontrelle Willis. That’s amazing considering there were only 25 unique names in those top 34.

But what’s more interesting is that every one of those teams offering up the young talent are young rebuilding clubs, wanting to get younger, or wanting to get better – the Rays, Orioles, Giants, Twins, and Marlins.

That brings us back to Ian Snell. I mentioned above he had a 21% xERA improvement from 2006 to 2007. Only six pitchers in the 170 performance group had improvements higher than Snell in the period:

yr from yr to % improv yr to xERA
Jake Peavy 2006 2007     43% 2.11
Josh Beckett 2006 2007     37% 3.20
Scott Baker 2006 2007     36% 4.13
Oliver Perez 2006 2007     33% 3.93
Jeff Francis 2005 2006     30% 3.74
Joe Blanton 2006 2007     22% 3.45
Ian Snell 2006 2007     21% 3.93

Is Snell really a Francis or Perez?

That brings us to the Pirates and Stark’s column. If the Pirates offer up Snell, what could they realistically expect to get back for him if his two-year performance median is a tick below the MLB young gun average, but his improvement rate suggests a breakout season in 2007?

Perhaps two or three 0-3 year players that could start everyday right now? Would that be enough considering Snell is going to provide the Pirates five more years of service at below market cost? Remember now, the Pirates don’t have a replacement anywhere in the system for Snell, and they are not likely to get back another young power arm unless that pitcher is a lower level prospect.

At the same point, the Pirates are headed down the road to lose another 90 in 2008 with or without Snell, so gutting the team certainly makes some sense. The old saying is, you have to build a success cycle to consistently win and even if Bay, Nady, LaRoche, and Sanchez were all dealt and prospects obtained over the winter, the team is still going nowhere with Snell on the mound.

My thought has always been Snell is an 80-pitch, two-pitch pitcher and he’s been very, very lucky. I would take the position he’s at his high value point right now and deal him expecting a package of two to three solid young core players, at least one being a lower level young gun power arm.

The Pirates? They will probably hold on to Snell knowing Robert Nutting’s penchant of avoiding controversy with the fans ultimately hoping he sells more tickets in 2008 and giving a dam about the future of this club.

No-brainer.. deal Snell. Not for a king’s ransom, but a reasonable ransom, if it can be had.