PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It's shortly after 8:30 a.m. at the Tampa Bay Rays spring training facility, and the clubhouse doors are shut for a players-only meeting.
The media has been asked to step outside, and the team is presumably getting down to some serious business.
Through the walls, thumping and screaming are plainly audible, as if a scene from "Fight Club" is being played out inside. Before long, what is actually happening becomes apparent, and it's uglier than almost any physical confrontation imaginable.
Rookies and minor leaguers are painfully belting out the lyrics to "Shake It Off" by Taylor Swift, "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" by Otis Redding and "Friends In Low Places" by Garth Brooks.
After the howling, caterwauling and bursts of laughter have subsided, highly touted Rays pitching prospect Blake Snell settles into a chair in a nearby conference room. He confirms the ordeal and reveals that he performed the Sir Mix-a-Lot classic "Baby Got Back" while future teammates whooped and hollered.
Snell, 23, emerged from the team-building exercise unscathed, after showing the mental fortitude that would help him pitch impressively in his MLB debut before 40,000 fans at Yankee Stadium six weeks later. Of course, it didn't hurt that he has four dynamic pitches in his repertoire.
The 6-foot-4, 180-pound left-hander from Seattle is slated to make his second major league start Thursday against the Mariners, after he was recalled from Triple-A Durham. He throws a fastball that touches 97 mph, a changeup that drops out of the zone and a slider and curveball that get better as a game progresses. In 12 starts in Triple-A this season, Snell is 3-5 with a 3.29 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 63 innings.
"The best way to describe him is electric," Rays catcher Hank Conger said. "The ball gets up on you. The biggest thing is he's able to throw his off-speed pitches to get back into a count. He's confident throwing any pitch at any point in the count."
Said Snell, "I feel comfortable with all my pitches. I feel like I've worked on all of them. Every year, there's been a certain pitch I'll really focus on, and it really has developed in that year. But I feel like the last couple years, they're all finally coming together."
In addition to velocity, the late life on Snell's fastball makes it more difficult to hit. If a batter tries to sit on the fastball, he might get embarrassed by a change at 82 mph or a sharp slider. Then there's Snell's curve, which can dip below 70 mph. It's downright filthy -- as Yankees catcher Brian McCann can attest.
Snell was drafted No. 52 overall by Tampa Bay in 2011 with a supplemental pick made possible by the departure of free agent Brad Hawpe, and he progressed slowly through the low minors in his first four professional seasons. Then in late 2014, Snell's father, who pitched in the minors for six seasons and now runs the Seattle Select youth baseball program, urged Blake to rededicate himself to his craft. Blake took the advice to heart and narrowed his focus. He made it a point to become more coachable. He cut down on fast food and soda. He watched and learned from Rays left-handers Matt Moore and Drew Smyly when they played alongside him during rehab assignments.
"The first three years, I didn't want to listen," Snell said. "I was stubborn. I felt like I was good enough the way I was. I thought it was all just going to happen. So when it didn't, that made me sit back and think, 'There's a lot I need to do to become the best I want to be.' ... It just kind of took off since then."
In a few months last year, Snell rose from Class A to Triple-A. He posted a combined 15-4 record with a 1.41 ERA and 163 strikeouts in 134 innings and was named 2015 minor league player of the year by Baseball America and USA Today.
Rays manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Jim Hickey didn't get a chance to see Snell pitch in person until this year. Until then, they relied on reports from the team's development staff and front office to track his progress. They finally got a glimpse of the future in spring training.
"You start to see why there's so much excitement," Cash said. "It's four plus pitches, with an incredibly powerful fastball, and he does it effortlessly."
Hickey has served as the Rays' pitching coach since the 2007 season. He has tutored a Cy Young winner in David Price and a strikeout champion in Scott Kazmir. He has overseen the development of All-Stars Moore, Chris Archer and James Shields. Even in that lofty context, Hickey rates Snell comparably in terms of talent and capability.
"He came with a lot of hype, if you will, and I don't think it is hype," Hickey said of Snell. "It's pretty much factual. He has as much potential as anybody who's come through these doors. We've had a lot of success, and I think his ceiling is absolutely as high as any of them."
Snell loves music, and his tastes reflect adaptability. Depending on his mood, he might be listening to hip-hop, R&B, pop, country or rock. While some players superstitiously cling to their uniform numbers, Snell has worn three this season: No. 50 in spring training, No. 37 with Triple-A Durham and his favorite, No. 4, in his MLB debut.
Maybe it's no surprise, as Conger said, that Snell is unafraid to use any of his four pitches at any time. It's the culmination of five years of work on mechanics, technique, skill and strategy.
"I've built so much confidence, and I've built those pitches to be really strong offerings," Snell said. "I don't see why I wouldn't have the confidence to throw it in any situation, any count."
Said Rays pitching prospect Taylor Guerrieri, "He's coming at you with a mid-90s fastball and good off-speed stuff -- a really good changeup. I'd say the changeup is his best offering."
Snell agrees that the change is his best off-speed pitch because he's able to mimic his fastball delivery so closely.
"I throw it just as hard as I throw the fastball," Snell said. "I throw it with the same conviction and same effort, but then the ball is 82-84 with sink."
Early in his career, Snell was hyper. But he said the task of psyching himself up to pitch wasted precious energy. Now he carries himself smoothly and confidently, locking in on the mental side of the game while making sure to not lose his competitive edge.
"He's a bulldog," Rays pitching prospect Jacob Faria said. "He's never satisfied with his performance."
That helps explain why Snell talks to himself on the mound. He is reminding himself of what he needs to do at a certain moment. He says umpires have warned him about it during games, probably thinking he's arguing balls and strikes or dropping four-letter bombs.
In reality, Snell is navigating his way out of jams by audibly going over what he should be doing mechanically and strategically. It's slightly reminiscent of former Detroit Tigers right-hander Mark Fidrych, the eccentric 1976 AL rookie of the year who talked to the baseball.
"No, that's nuts," Snell said. "I don't talk to the baseball. I just kind of talk to myself. I talk out loud because I like to hear it. I understand it. If I talk in my head, I feel like I'm not listening to it. It's weird, but it works."
Just like karaoke.