What to expect in Snell's highly anticipated Giants debut tonight

What to expect in Snell's highly anticipated Giants debut tonight originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tyler Fitzgerald had played in just four MLB games when the Giants coaching staff handed him the toughest assignment of his rookie season. Fitzgerald started at third base last September in what ended up being Blake Snell's final appearance for the San Diego Padres, and as he got ready to face the man who would win the NL Cy Young Award, Fitzgerald found that there wasn't really a great way to prepare.

"The toughest part is you just can't plan for him. There's no game plan," Fitzgerald said on Sunday. "You get ahead 1-0 and you think you might see a cookie or something good, but he might rip off a slider below the zone or a changeup. There's nothing you can predict."

The one hint Fitzgerald got from veteran teammates was to auto-take if he fell behind 0-1, because Snell was likely to try and bury a pitch. That's exactly what happened in their first matchup of that game last season. Fitzgerald fouled off a 96 mph fastball and then left the bat on his shoulder as Snell threw a biting curve below the zone. He came back with two more low curveballs, and after taking one for a strike, Fitzgerald hit a harmless fly ball to right.

On Monday night, it's the Washington Nationals who will try and find a pattern, and it's the Giants who hope to ride one of the game's best arms to a victory. They have tried not to raise expectations, and Snell still will be on a pitch count, but there's plenty of excitement for the debut of one of the most talented pitchers ever to wear orange and black.

After signing a two-year contract last month, Snell pitched in two minor league games and then faced three teammates -- Fitzgerald, Austin Slater and Mike Yastrzemski -- in a simulated game at Dodger Stadium last Wednesday. Afterward, he deemed himself ready to go, and the Giants are hoping for a repeat of 2023.

A two-time Cy Young Award winner, Snell is coming off a historic season in San Diego. He had a 2.25 ERA overall, but it was a microscopic 1.20 over his final 23 starts, when he allowed 19 total runs and struck out 186 batters in 135 innings. Snell joined Hall of Famer Bob Gibson as the only pitchers in the modern era to post an ERA of 1.20 or lower over that many starts.

Snell was just about unhittable, holding opposing batters to a .156 average from May 25 through the end of the season, but there was another part of his game that showed up even in those starts. It will be in the spotlight at some point during his Giants tenure.

While leading the Majors in ERA, Snell also led the way with 99 walks. During those 23 starts, he allowed as many walks (72) as hits. As a staff, the Giants had MLB's lowest walk rate last season, but Snell's stuff and resume were too good to ignore, so an outlier was added to the top of the rotation.

For Snell, pitching this way is just what he prefers. He is reminiscent of former Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong in the way he grinds through at-bats and never gives in, only with a more high-octane repertoire. Snell believes that his comfort level with working out of trouble and walking batters instead of throwing them a hittable pitch is a big reason for his success last season.

"Think about the guys that I'm walking, I'm walking usually guys that can hurt you," Snell said on "Giants Talk" last month. "I trust my stuff. I trust that I can get out of situations. I've done it my whole career. I've always been scared of walks because of just, 'Oh, what people will say.' But then I realized they don't know who I am, they don't know what kind of pitcher I am. It's all ideas, it's all opinions that have no impact because they're not with me every day.

"I started realizing that and then when I realized that, I said, 'I don't care about walks.' I'm going to pitch my game, the way I want to pitch, and if I walk people I'm not looking at it anymore. I'm not going to get mad that I walked two guys. I'm going to get more locked-in on did we win the game, did I help my team win, and how many runs did I give up? Those are it. Did I go six innings or more? Those are more important to me than, 'Oh, I walked three guys,' because if nothing happened, what are we upset about?"

Snell's walk rate last season was his highest since his rookie year of 2016, when he broke into the big leagues as one of the top 15 prospects in the minors and posted a 3.54 ERA in 19 starts. One of his Tampa Bay Rays teammates back then was Alex Cobb, who was instrumental in convincing Snell to come to San Francisco when free agency dried up.

Cobb will have to wait at least a month to join Snell in the rotation, but he's excited about being a fan for a while. He smiled Friday when asked about some of the quirks Snell brings to the mound along with perhaps the best four-pitch mix in the game.

"I mean, he's a lefty from Seattle," Cobb said. "It's exactly what you would expect."

The Giants rode a righty from Seattle for years, and if Tim Lincecum had been around in the pitch-tracking era, his advanced metrics might have looked quite a bit like Snell's in 2023. Snell's curveball ranked as one of the best individual pitches in the game and his changeup was in the 99th percentile in value. All four of his offerings were plus pitches, with his fastball averaging 95.5 mph and opponents batting just .123 off his slider.

The repertoire is electric, and there's nothing robotic about Snell as he throws it at hitters. During that simulated game at Dodger Stadium last week, Snell was working on his arm slot between pitches and having plenty of conversations.

"A lot of mannerisms. He's going to be coaching himself out on the mound after every pitch," Cobb said when asked what fans should expect from Snell. "But really, it's just electric stuff. I feel like most of our fans have gotten a little bit of a taste because he has pitched against us quite a bit. He was the best pitcher in baseball last year. You can expect that type of quality, and he's just a good person, too.

"I think he's going to be very personable and very easy to like as a player, and he's fun to watch. It's exciting to be his teammate again."

Eventually, with Snell, Cobb and Robbie Ray, the Giants could have the best rotation in the National League. Already it looks like the strength of the team, with Snell sliding in behind Logan Webb and just ahead of Kyle Harrison and Jordan Hicks, a revelation through two starts.

The last time Snell took the mound in an MLB game, Webb was on the other side. They were the two Cy Young frontrunners in late September when they matched up at Oracle Park, and while Snell threw six shutout innings to cement his trophy, Webb made a statement too, pitching a complete game and leading the Giants to a 2-1 win.

Like Snell, Giants manager Bob Melvin was in the other dugout that night. He vividly remembers watching two of the league's best turn it up a notch, knowing what was on the line personally even though their teams weren't headed for the postseason.

"We've got them both on the same team now," Melvin said on Sunday. "That's a good thing."

Download and follow the Giants Talk Podcast