Rays' Blake Snell named AL Cy Young Award winner in first full season in majors

Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Blake Snell was named the American League Cy Young Award winner on Wednesday, capping a breakout season in his first full year in the majors.

The 25-year-old lefty was 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA, and he led all major league starters with a .178 batting average allowed -- the fifth lowest ever for a starter and lowest since Pedro Martinez's record .167 average in 2000.

Snell became just the fourth AL starter with a sub-2.00 ERA since the league instituted the designated hitter in 1973, joining Martinez (1.74 in 2000), Ron Guidry (1.74 in 1978) and Roger Clemens (1.93 in 1990). He becomes the second Cy Young winner in Rays history, joining David Price (2012).

"This means a whole lot," Snell said. "It's something I wanted to achieve this year. I had this goal in mind.

"I put in the work, and it means a whole lot to me."

The 52nd overall pick in the 2011 draft from Shorewood High School in Seattle, Snell reached the majors in 2016. He struggled at the outset of 2017, however, and returned to Triple-A for seven starts; a strong second half set the stage for 2018.

He made the All-Star team this year as a late addition after going 12-5 with a 2.27 ERA in the first half, but a stint on the disabled list in mid-July with shoulder fatigue seemed to ruin any chance at the Cy Young Award.

Snell returned on Aug. 4 in a four-inning start, then reeled off nine consecutive wins. Over his final 11 starts, he went 9-0 with a 1.17 ERA, allowed just nine runs in 61⅔ innings and held batters to a .155 average.

His 180⅔ innings are the fewest for a Cy Young-winning starting pitcher in a nonstrike season.

Snell earned 17 first-place votes and 169 points in voting, ahead of Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander's 13 first-place votes and 154 points and Cleveland Indians stalwart Corey Kluber's 71 points.

"Knowing I won it against two of the greats -- Kluber and Verlander -- it's amazing," Snell said.

The development of Snell's wipeout curveball was his big weapon, as he recorded 93 strikeouts with the pitch -- the third-most strikeouts with a curveball in the AL, behind only Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers. Batters hit just .126 against it. He also threw a fastball that averaged 95.8 mph, a wipeout slider and a changeup, and Snell induced misses on 34.7 percent of batter swings -- the highest rate in the AL and second in the majors to the Arizona Diamondbacks' Patrick Corbin.

Despite all the gaudy numbers, Snell wasn't necessarily a Cy Young lock. Verlander finished 16-9 with a 2.52 ERA but threw 33⅓ more innings, finished with 69 more strikeouts and allowed the lowest OBP among AL starters. Verlander also had a big edge over Snell in FanGraphs WAR -- 6.8 to 4.6. (Snell led AL pitchers in Baseball-Reference WAR at 7.5 but ranked just seventh in FanGraphs' calculations.)

Verlander might have been in line to win his second Cy Young -- along with his 2011 award with the Detroit Tigers, when he also won MVP honors -- but he had a 5.29 ERA in August, when he served up nine home runs in 32⅓ innings. He recovered to post a 1.09 ERA in five September starts, but it wasn't enough to overtake Snell. Instead, the Astros righty finished second in the voting for the third time in his career, notching 13 first-place votes.

Kluber was hoping to become just the 11th pitcher to win at least three Cy Young Awards. The 2014 and 2017 winner finished 20-9 with a 2.89 ERA, leading the AL in innings and enjoying the lowest walk rate. He became Cleveland's first 20-game winner since Cliff Lee in 2008.

Kluber's teammate Trevor Bauer was looking like a strong candidate, as well, before suffering a stress fracture in his leg on Aug. 11. He pitched just 9⅓ innings over the rest of the season and finished 12-6 with a 2.21 ERA. He was leading the AL in innings and strikeouts while ranking third in ERA at the time of his injury. He earned 13 points.

Boston's Chris Sale had been another solid contender, but he didn't pitch much during the final two months after suffering from shoulder fatigue. He finished 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA and 237 strikeouts in 158 innings. He earned 59 points.