ST. PETERSBURG — Kyle Snyder can relate.
He was a first-round draft pick with grand expectations. A minor-league pitcher enjoying success but dealing with injuries that threatened to derail him. A mostly unsuccessful big-leaguer, living with frustration and self-doubt, on bad Royals teams and a championship Red Sox club. A veteran trying to hang on at Triple-A before transitioning to a new gig that sent him back to the low minors.
All of which created a base for the job he does now, and quite well, as the Rays’ pitching coach.
“It gives me a crazy platform because I’m the beneficiary of all that I’ve gone through,” Snyder said. “I never played the victim … but at some level, I feel like I might have been somewhat victimized in my career. But I’ve definitely been the beneficiary of it in my second career just because of what that platform provides me.”
Add in Snyder’s extensive knowledge of mechanics and strategy, a personal and positive approach and the ability to synthesize and simply present vast amounts of data, and you get a sense of why Rays pitchers rave about him.
“He knows how to relate to everybody,” reliever Pete Fairbanks said. “He understands what it’s like to be in those spots, to be out there, to be hurt, to struggle, to succeed. He’s been through all of that. So to be able to relate, I think, is something that is crucial in terms of building a good relationship. Then to take that into knowing what you’re talking about on the pitching side of things, too? It’s a one-of-a-kind combo.”
Snyder, 43, relishes the chance to help.
Kyle Snyder (23) huddles with catcher Mike Zunino (10) and starting pitcher Michael Wacha (52) during an April 11 game at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]He was a 6-foot-8 four-sport athlete at Riverview High in Sarasota, where father Don (a former Rice basketball player) was a cardiac surgeon, and he was taken by the Rays in the 27th round of their first-ever draft in 1996.
He opted to attend North Carolina, competing against a Florida State team that included future Red Sox teammate and current Rays manager Kevin Cash, and became the No. 7 overall pick in 1999 by Kansas City, taken ahead of Barry Zito and Ben Sheets, and getting $2.1 million.
Snyder pitched only nine minor-league games before elbow problems that led to Tommy John surgery cost him nearly two full seasons. He came back in 2002 and pitched his way to the majors by the next May, then shoulder issues that also required surgery ended his 2003 season and wiped out 2004. He returned in 2005 to pitch for a 106-loss Royals team, was waived the next June but got picked up by the Red Sox and ended up with a 2007 World Series ring.
“I went through a lot of what these guys go through with expectations of being a high pick,” Snyder said. “With the disappointment of not pitching well. With the disappointment of being hurt as often as I was, which could be hand-in-hand with maybe I wasn’t good anyways. You don’t know. That self-doubt creeps in.”
After spending 2009 with the Mets’ Triple-A team, Snyder was done pitching at age 32. His major-league record was 8-17, 5.57 in 93 games over five seasons.
Coaching went better. He started at the short-season rookie ball level in 2012, his philosophy shaped by former coaches such as John Farrell, Guy Hansen and Bob McClure, and impressed enough to be moved quickly through their system to Triple-A.
Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder presents Blake Snell with his 2018 AL Cy Young Award plaque at the start of the 2019 season. [ Times (2019) ]Faced with the possibility of Snyder being hired away, the Rays promoted him to the big-league job after the 2017 season, parting ways with Jim Hickey, even though he had a year left on his contract.
The pairing with Cash, and operating under the team’s pitching-first philosophy, has made for a good fit and a collaborative relationship as the Rays staff has ranked as one of the majors’ best each year.
“His experiences as a former pitcher, and then certainly now a coach at many different levels, have allowed him to find ways to connect with all different types of pitchers,” Cash said. “He gives detailed thought but a simple message to pitchers to make them better.”
Former Ray Blake Snell raved constantly about the impact Snyder had on him starting in the minors, referring to him as his second father. “Papa Snydes … You can tell the impact Kyle’s had on my life,” Snell said after being traded to San Diego in December. “He saw me as an 18-year-old boy and he just worked me over and over, so much time he put into me, and I’m forever thankful.”
Bullpen coach Stan Boroski said Snyder’s biggest strength is collecting, sorting through and recalling information on their major- and minor-league pitchers.
“No detail escapes Kyle,” Boroski said. “Every little thing that every guy does, he’s got his thumb on. Such as spin rates, carry, usage percentage, in-zone rates, you name it.”
Rays manager Kevin Cash, right, and pitching coach Kyle Snyder chat during Game 5 of the World Series last year. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]Two other elements to Snyder’s approach are making a personal connection with each of his pitchers so he can individualize the message, and spreading an unrelenting positivity, stressing to each pitcher what he does well.
“He’s one of the best in the game for a reason,” said Rich Hill, who has played for plenty of coaches during 20 pro seasons. “What makes him great is knowing the players as individuals, and knowing what they do best and accentuating those attributes each and every pitcher, making them feel they’re the best on that given day they’re going to throw.”
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