As a teen Snell was 5 feet 6 and wore Size 13 shoes. His dad, former minor-league pitcher Dave Snell, told him he’d grow into his body. By the time he was a junior at Shorewood he was a 6-3 flamethrower on the radar of major-league scouts.
WASHINGTON – Attending his first All-Star Game, amid growing acclaim as one of baseball’s rising young pitching talents, Blake Snell reflected on his early days in Seattle.
His most noticeable attribute was not the 95-mph fastball and killer slider that has made him the Tampa Bay Rays’ ace, but rather the size 13 feet that belied his slight stature. Starting out in the Richmond Little League and progressing through the Seattle Select and Shorewood High School programs, Snell hardly began as a breakout star.
His dad and baseball mentor, former minor-league pitcher Dave Snell, tried to tell Blake he’d grow into his body. All the teenager knew was that he was 5 feet 6 and self-consciously awkward.
“My dad knew that; I didn’t know that,” he said of the blossoming ahead. “I was upset I had big feet and was so small. I was a good player, but there were a lot of players that were bigger than me, better than me, stronger than me.”
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Dave Snell’s encouragement sustained him: “Stay the course, focus on what you can do, get better, and when you grow into your body, you’ll be better than those guys. Just believe it.”
Blake believed, and by the time he was a junior at Shorewood he was a 6-3 flamethrower on the radar of major-league scouts. He committed to the University of Washington but chose to sign with the Rays when they selected him in the first round of the 2011 draft.
From that point it was an unsteady ascension to becoming an All-Star at age 25, when the American League corrected this year’s biggest snub Friday by adding Snell to replace injured Corey Kluber.
The turning point for the left-hander – who now is an athletic 6-4 and 200 pounds — unquestionably came after the 2014 season, when Snell advanced to Class A and was named the Rays’ top minor-league pitcher. That was all well and good, but Dave Snell, whose career had petered out at Class AA in the Mariners organization in 1988, gave his son a dose of tough love. After dinner at Spiro’s Pizza and Pasta in Shoreline, Dave admonished Blake that he needed to work harder if he was going to reach his potential.
“It was something that got me going, that I could be a lot better,’’ Blake Snell said. “I wasn’t taking it serious at the time. Once I started taking it serious, and I was more focused and driven on my everyday goals and what I wanted to accomplish, it kind of took over. I got lost within that, and the season was over before I knew it. I did something I wanted to do that was on my mind. To see that happen was very exciting to me.”
What Snell did was put together a breakout 2015 season (15-4, 1.41 ERA with 163 strikeouts in 134 innings at three levels) that earned him USA Today’s award as the Minor League Player of the Year. By 2016, Snell had made the majors, but he endured struggles, and a couple minor-league demotions, before it all clicked this season.
Snell credits Kyle Snyder, a pitching coach in the minors who now holds that job with the Rays, as another influential mentor. In fact, Snell said Snyder and his dad are tied atop the list of those who have nurtured him as a pitcher along the way.
“My dad helped me with a lot growing up, but he also let me learn from other people, let me do my thing once I got to pro ball, which was awesome,” he said. “Then when I met Kyle Snyder, he taught me so much more.”
This year, Snell is 12-5 with a 2.27 ERA, which is how he found himself this week among the elite of baseball at Nationals Park. Among those who have made the trip from the Northwest to D.C. to watch him Tuesday (when AL manager A.J. Hinch plans to use Snell as the third AL pitcher after Chris Sale and Luis Severino) are his dad, three brothers (including his twin brother Tyler), and a friend with whom he played travel ball, Mark Klick.
They will witness a pitcher who undoubtedly has grown into his size 13 shoes.