Drew Rasmussen was on a cruise. Against the mighty Yankees, he allowed just a pair of hits while keeping his opponent off the board in the seventh inning. He was effective, too, with pitching counts in the 70s. manager Kevin Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder were willing to fire Rasmussen for the eighth, at least.
But the Yankee Stadium jumbotron displays the speed and break of every pitch, and as Rasmussen worked the final seventh, Snyder noticed a dramatic fall off the bike. He met his pitcher on the top step of the dugout and asked him how he was feeling.
Rasmussen admitted something was wrong with his elbow. It was the last round he will pitch until August at the earliest.
An MRI the next day showed tight flexor muscles near the elbow. It’s unclear if, having had two Tommy John surgeries in college, Rasmussen will also need surgery to fix that.
“Every time one of my guys gets injured, they’re all the same. They are all horrible. [Tyler] Glasnow to Chicago, Jeffrey [Springs] at home, Drew in New York. They are all at the same level. It’s a very tough part of the job,” Snyder said recently, referring to some Rays starters who suffered serious injuries. “The two days after Drew, I just wasn’t in a good place.”
“When somebody gets hurt out there, a part of them gets hurt too,” the Rays’ late ace Shane McClanahan said of the team’s pitching coach.
“It hurts even more when guys fail”
In 2013, Bleacher Report published an article titled “The Alarming Rise of MLB Pitchers Who Have Had Tommy John Surgery”. In 2016, Jeff Passan published an entire book about pitchers’ valuable but vulnerable weapons and the injury epidemic that plagued them. In 2021, injuries were on the rise. In 2022, pitchers were getting injured at nearly twice the hitting rate, marking a new high in the ever-growing disparity. Already this year, there were fears that the pitch clock – or simply the continuation of well-established speed trends – could cause a further increase in pitching injuries.
Keeping players on the field is the next frontier for baseball teams looking to move forward. But until the human body can be fully optimized for health, injury is part of sport. And increasingly, being a pitching coach in particular means sending your guys into a battle that will land at least some of them on the operating table. If you care about them, it’s impossible not to be affected.
The Rays turn the defrocked into suitors for Cy Young. It’s a shrewd formula that has kept them in contention despite payrolls a fraction of the size of their American League East competitors. But recently, even this latest and greatest iteration of the Rays has been beset by rotational injuries: Glasnow was sidelined to start this season just months after returning from Tommy John, Shane Baz will miss the entire year after getting TJ last season, Jeffrey Springs needed TJ less than a month into a transcendent and stellar season, and most recently, Rasmussen. That doesn’t include relievers who hit the injured list.
For Snyder, that translates to a lot of mental angst.
“I have sleepless nights,” he said. “Because of the depth of the relationships you create, it hurts even more when guys fail. I’m still learning how to best handle that.
The soft-spoken 6-foot-8 Snyder was the seventh overall pick in the 1999 MLB Draft. His own pitching career was almost immediately blighted by an operation by Tommy John that forced him to miss his first two full seasons of professional ball. Injuries limited the rest of his time as a player before eventually forcing him into retirement. In 2012, after one last surgery to see if he could stretch his time on the mound a bit longer, the Rays hired him as a pitching coach for their short-season A-ball subsidiary.
“I realized this was the start of a new chapter in my life in baseball,” he said.
Snyder’s own experience helps him empathize when his pitchers have to overcome health issues. But that didn’t soften the blow when, a year after coaching, he first saw one of his lads get his elbow popped on the mound. “I remember it like it was yesterday,” Snyder said of the game in which Taylor Guerrieri tore his ulnar collateral ligament.
“Part of my job is to help them with their delivery. So when they fail physically, it’s hard not to get frustrated with yourself.
“Let Me Carry the Weight of It All”
By his own admission, Snyder is not subject to anxiety in his daily life. Maybe that’s why he has the ability to take on the concerns of an entire pitching team. The Rays are known for putting pitchers in position to succeed by emphasizing the strengths of an individual arsenal. The team’s track record earns buy-in, and the results build a pitcher’s confidence in the process — and in themselves. Confidence translates into conviction, which breeds more success.
But since nothing is ever that simple, Snyder is there to absorb any doubts pitchers might have.
“He tells us, ‘Let me bear the weight of everything, and you don’t worry,'” McClanahan said.
“They are playing a global game. Their performance is known around the world, and sometimes I feel like they push too hard because of that,” Snyder said. “It’s more important to me to take that away from them so they can exhale easier, just be themselves. I want my players to realize that I’m constantly thinking about them, about what’s in their best interest.
This means getting to know them as people first and pitchers second. Snyder loves talking about parenting with the dads on his team; he encouraged McClanahan to separate what happens on the pitch from the rest of his life. When Springs’ season was cut short, Snyder saw it as an opportunity for the pitcher to buy a house near the ballpark and spend time with his young son.
And that means protecting them from some of the granular feedback available in modern gaming. The constantly collected data on today’s launchers can be inaccurate signs of problems to come. Snyder sees these indicators and, more often than not, swallows them.
“A really, really difficult balance to find”
Despite – or perhaps because of – how much each hurts him, you have to wonder if Snyder ever worries about putting his pitchers in danger. Maybe winning sometimes requires a UCL sacrifice or two.
“Yes,” he said without hesitation.
“And that’s a really hard thing to accept. It got harder, I admit, for me. But I don’t know what the alternative is. You want to improve guys – they want to get better. You don’t want to have the healthiest team or the healthiest pitching staff without pushing the limits of their improvement. But it’s a really, really difficult balance to strike. I worry about that.
The pitching success with the Rays changes their careers and their lives. Citing how the time in Tampa transformed the guys’ careers and pushed them to their full potential, Zach Eflin said, “For them to be so interested in me was truly a blessing to me and my family.”
Last offseason, he signed the biggest free agent contract in Rays franchise history. Snyder was part of the contingent that courted Eflin, and just months after joining the team, Eflin is outgoing.
“I mean, I could go on and on about Snyder,” he said. “He cares a lot more about us as people than the pitchers.”
Which makes it all the more difficult to watch them suffer.
“I think sometimes it can work against me in terms of how it might affect my mood after being injured, things like that — things that I have to overcome, psychological hurdles that I have to overcome,” Snyder said. “But we have to get closer to the players. And that’s what makes it difficult. But I think that’s the right way to go.
“And I’m hoping to find a better way to keep them healthy so they can get better and stay healthy, and I can sit in the dugout and watch them do their thing.”