Blake Snell: Constant Improvement

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Three players in Durham Bulls history have won both the USA Today and Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year awards in the same season: Andruw Jones in 1996, Jeremy Hellickson in 2010 and Blake Snell in 2015.

That’s already pretty impressive company, but how about this: Snell’s 1.41 ERA in 2015 was the lowest in the minors since Justin Verlander had a 1.29 in 2005.

He’s garnering a reputation in the International League, too.

“He has a power fastball from the left side and that always plays,” said Kyle Roller, who played with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2015. “I never faced him, and I’m glad I didn’t have to. I’m glad he’s on my team.”

He is also the second-ranked left-handed pitcher in the minors, according to Baseball America, and the consensus No. 1 prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.

So after all that Blake Snell accomplished in 2015, it’d be easy to think he should keep doing the same thing he did in preparation for last season to continue that success. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Or maybe he earned some time to coast and enjoy the success he already accomplished. Snell had other ideas. On top of his usual offseason training he tried something new — an improved diet.

“It was more I just started eating healthier foods,” Snell said, “and I dropped the soda, the ice cream, all the bad food I just dropped out and made it every day I was eating healthy and pretty much only drinking water. That was more of a good mix and I felt really good every day.”

Jettisoning the junk food might not have added five miles per hour to Snell’s four-seamer, but he already noticed having more energy, feeling better every day, and never having a day where he feels like he’s dragging.

“It was [tough] at first because I like drinking soda pretty frequently, and eating ice cream and that food pretty frequently,” he said. “But after a while I got used to it.”

Another unique offseason training technique was perhaps more tied to Snell’s offseason location. He spent the fall and winter in his hometown of Shoreline, Wash., just north of Seattle, where he had easy access to a plethora of hiking trails in the nearby mountains.

“I went hiking a lot of places, but my favorite was Lake Blanca,” Snell said. “I want to say it’s a 14 or 12 mile hike, and you go all the way up the mountain. It’s just all repetitive, and you’re like, ‘Am I there yet?’ I was getting bored so I started running up the mountain and it felt like I got nowhere.”

You won’t hear of many pitchers running up a mountain as part of their offseason training. But Snell said he remained focused on the prize at the end, and the long combination of trail running and hiking was more than worth it.

“Out of nowhere you get to a little valley and over that is Lake Blanca, which is all glacier water and it’s like the most beautiful water I’d ever seen,” he said. “It was pretty cold, but I told myself I had to get in it. So I got in, not my whole body, but at least half my body, so I was excited about that.”

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Another product of his successful 2015 season was an invitation to Spring Training with the big league club. There he got to share a locker room with Tampa Bay Rays aces Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore, among many others.

“I would say I learned a lot of stuff,” Snell said. “Not like pitches or anything like that, but I learned just watching the big league guys and how they carry themselves, how they go about their days. It’s not like you get to big league camp and you learn so much, there’s just little by little that you learn, and I learned some pretty cool things from watching.”

Snell got a taste of how the big leaguers carry themselves when Matt Moore came to Durham on a rehab assignment in 2015, and Moore again caught his eye in Spring Training.

“He’s taught me more than he can imagine just in certain situations on the field, pitch count, just more of nothing to do with a pitch, just when to throw it, how to throw it,” Snell said.

One other change he noticed in himself after spending part of the preseason in Major League camp was his aggressiveness in workouts, Snell said. He’s taking each workout and training session more seriously and being intentional about what he does between starts.

He’s not only working harder, Snell has his sights again set on high goals. After such a successful season in 2015, he’s not pausing or coasting to enjoy the limelight.

“It’s weird because I did win all those awards, but I never really felt it,” Snell said. “If I don’t feel it, I don’t know how to show it. So I was excited about it, but I don’t feel it in that sense because I’m the kind of guy that feels like I always have something to work on.”

Snell also isn’t the type of person who leaves a checklist of goals on his locker for all to see. He prefers to keep his aspirations for the season to himself and use them for personal motivation.

“I get up and think about it and say, ‘Ok you have to work to get to where you want to be,’” he said. “I don’t set goals that are necessarily easy. I really want to reach for the moon and go for it.”

So while fans may not know exactly what Snell is working toward, they can trust his training. It already led to wild success last season and improved energy, and there’s little doubt that what he accomplishes this season he was focused on the entire offseason.

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