Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sizing Up Nick Blackburn

Nick Blackburn chose the right time to put together his best stretch of baseball last season. In his final four regular-season starts, he went 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA and dazzling 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, leading the Twins to a 4-0 record and helping propel them to a postseason berth. He added another tremendous outing against the Yankees in the ALDS, helping cement his reputation as a big-game pitcher and sending Twins fans into the offseason with a very favorable impression of his game.

The outstanding clutch performance down the stretch helped fans forget about the rough patch that had preceded it. In the 11 games prior, Blackburn had gone 1-7 with a 7.36 ERA. Opponents hit .356 against him during that span, pounding 13 homers in 55 innings. The ugly string of games included one in which Blackburn helped blow a 10-run lead against the Athletics -- perhaps the year's most painful game -- and several others in which he lasted only a few innings and gave his team almost no chance to win. At times during these grueling couple of months, Blackburn seemed downright incapable of getting major-league hitters out.

As he has often done during his time with the Twins, Blackburn bounced back from this troubling stretch and made the adjustments necessary to get back on track. But his brutal run following the All Star break served as a reminder of the fickle nature of pitchers who fall into Blackburn's mold: low-strikeout, low-walk hurlers who allow a great deal of contact. Since Blackburn doesn't overpower hitters, he relies on the balls they hit off of him being converted into outs. And since he doesn't induce ground balls at an overwhelmingly high rate, his control over what happens with balls in play is limited.

It wasn't long ago that the Twins had a pitcher similar to Blackburn manning their rotation. It might be tough to remember at this point, but early in his time with the Twins Carlos Silva was indeed the same type of effective strike-throwing righty who relied on a sinking fastball to induce weak contact. Like Blackburn, Silva tended to allow a lot of hits, but his ability to limit walks and homers while drawing the occasional double play enabled him to be a successful pitcher during his first couple years in the Twins' rotation. In fact, comparing Silva's first two years with the Twins to Blackburn's two years in the rotation helps illustrate the similar styles:

Silva, 2004/05: 23-16, 3.84 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 3.4 K/9, 1.0 BB/9, .301 BAA
Blackburn, 2008/09: 22-22, 4.04 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 4.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, .291 BAA

Of course, we all know what happened to Silva in his third year with the Twins. He imploded, posting a 5.94 ERA while coughing up 38 home runs in 180 1/3 innings of work. Silva followed up that disastrous campaign with another solid season in '07 before signing a lucrative four-year deal with the Mariners, which ended up being an utter disaster for Seattle as Silva quickly ceased to be even remotely usable.

To be perfectly clear, this post is not meant to suggest that I expect Blackburn to meet the same fate as Silva. Plenty of pitchers have found prolonged success while posting middling strikeout rates and inducing grounders around 45 percent of the time (Joe Blanton is a good example). Furthermore, Blackburn is a good pitcher; he has put together three consecutive impressive seasons and has demonstrated that he can overcome his lack of overpowering stuff by making adjustments while pitching aggressively and fearlessly against big-league lineups.

But, Blackburn's post-break slump last year, along with Silva's 2006, should serve as a reminder that pitchers in this mold tread a rather thin line and don't have a whole lot of margin for error. If something is even slightly off, major-league hitters will take full advantage.

The Twins currently sport a solid rotation one-through-five, but they don't have much quality depth to speak of, so if Blackburn's game goes south it could mean trouble. For that reason, we'll all have to hope that the guy who takes the hill for the Twins this year is a lot more similar to that bulldog who took the team on his shoulders in the waning weeks of the 2009 season than the guy who was shelled repeatedly in the two months prior.

I think he will be.

18 comments:

Steven Ellingson said...

Do you really think we have below average depth?

I guess it depends on if Perkins stays with the club or not, but I think Perkins, Duensing, Swarzak, and Manship is a lot better depth than many teams can boast. Perkins has shown he can be a passable starter. Duensing has been great in his brief major league career. Swarzak and Manship have now gotten their cups of tea, and should be more ready this time around.

I'm not saying that these are great options, but if you compare them to other teams' 6-9 starters, I think we'll end up near the top.

Despite my quibble, this was a good post. Blackburn has always scared me, but it's hard to argue with 2 full seasons as consistent as he's put up. I do expect him closer to the 4.50 range this year, but it doesn't seem as though (knock on wood) he is going to implode.

Michael said...

I disagree with the comparison. Silva had very high ground ball rates in his good years (55.5, 52.2, 50.5, 49.2, 47.5). in his worst year with the Twins, Silva had a 43.6% gb rate. the last 2 years, his gb rate dropped to 44 and 45% with the Mariners.

Blackburn on the other hand has a career average gb% of 45.1%. I think the two pitchers are very different, even though they don't strike out many players. I worry that Blackburn's success is unsustainable with the lower gb%, especially with our outfield defense.

David said...

Wow Nick, you actually did it.

Again Silva is a horrible comp for Blackburn because of the reasons I pointed out many times before (ie Blackburn isnt a fat lazy piece of shit who doesn't listen to coaching)

Ian said...

I've always liked Nick b/c I think he is the best case scenario when someone says "he could be a 5th starter on a good team."

And you forgot to mention his impressive 17 game run to open the season - 116ip, 1.28whip, 2.94era. That was fun.

Nick N. said...

Do you really think we have below average depth?

It's possible that the Twins' depth ranks better than average in relative terms (though I'm really not so sure about that), but they usually have better back-up plans in place. If Duensing can pitch like he did in his rotation stint last year he'd be a lovely sixth starter, obviously, but do any of us really expect him to repeat that? Perkins was injured and bad last year so he has much to prove and I just don't have much faith in Swarzak or Manship at this point.

rghrbek said...

Perkins, Duensing, Swarzak, and Manship are a lot better depth than most teams can boast?

Well if you mean crappy pitchers who have no chance of being sustained MLB starting pitchers, and only might have a shot at long relief, then yes we have a lot better depth than many teams can boast.

Duensing maned up nicely last year, but his numbers and the rest of the guys you list above, are above average AAA pitchers. A problem the Twins have had over the years. Possibly overvaluing throwing strikes, slightly too much, over missing bats. These fly ball pitchers, in a smaller park, with the current outfield? Not good. Anyway, there is a reason nobody wants Perkins and any of those pitchers.

Don't get me wrong, I love the guys who throw strikes, provided they have an out pitch or two.

Nick, great post. More times than not I am terrified that Nicky B is another Silva incarnate. However, every time I get ready to give up on him, he comes thru in some big spots.

As someone posted here, I think his mental makeup might be tougher than Carlos'.

Still I don't see Blackburn as being anymore than a #5 on a rotation with the potential to fall off.

Interesting that the national media and the local media often times refer to him as a ground ball pitcher.

Parker said...

Good stuff Nick.

To be fair, Joe Blanton's career is not exactly an appropriate comparison when trying to project Blackburn either. If Blanton's career K/9 of 5.6 is middling, Blackburn's sub-5.0 K/9 is downright poor. More appropriate positive projections for Blackburn are Jim Kaat and Jim Perry - both of whom had sub-5.0 K/9 career rates and because their HR rates were below 1.0, I'm assuming they were groundball pitchers as well (Tewksbury is another good comp in the more recent era). But these pitchers are a rare breed.

To be sure, Blackburn seems to be pitching in a very fragile eco-system in high contact world that could dissolve around him if the defense weakens. With above-average defenders in Hardy, Hudson and Punto in 2010, I don't see that happening this coming season. While I'm not as high on him as those that love his "big game starter" ability, if he can work 200 innings at the back end of the rotation and give you a 50/50 shot of winning a ballgame, he's a solid contributor in my book.

Steven Ellingson said...

"Well if you mean crappy pitchers who have no chance of being sustained MLB starting pitchers, and only might have a shot at long relief, then yes we have a lot better depth than many teams can boast."

This is just a ridiculous statement with no basis in reality. CHONE projects these FIP's for Duensing, Manship, Swarzak, and Perkins:
4.77, 4.75, 5.11, 5.08, respectively.

For comparison, Joe Saunders, who was mentioned in this article, projects at 4.72.

Projection systems aren't perfect, but the point is, that you can't ignore minor league track records and just look at a short stint in the Majors. If you did that, Blackburn, Slowey, and Baker would be without jobs right now.

These aren't top tier prospects, and none of them are going to be top of the rotation starters, but they all look to be passable starters. These aren't great options, but I think they are better than what most teams have, and are better than guys we've had to use in the past (R.A. Dickey and Armando Gabino). One of the reason's this hasn't been a problem in the past, is that before last year, we've had pretty good luck with the health of our rotation. In 2008, we only used 7 starters. In 2007, we only used 8, despite the fact that the Ortiz and Ponson experiments failed miserably. We may have had better backup options that year, but that's only because our backup options were blocked by misguided attempts at adding veteran arms.

If I had the time, I'd go through the other teams in the league and look at who they have lined up as the 6th-9th starters. I don't, so I guess we'll just have to disagree on this point.

Dave said...

Well, lets take a look at the other teams in the division.

White Sox: Only 2 backups with major league experiance, Torres (who?) and Daniel Cabrera. Cabrera could be good, but he probobly has lost his "could be good" stuff a few years ago. These backups are, in a word, poor. A Peavy injury will mean a trip to the FA market or a trade.

Tigers: Enrique Gonzalez, Alfredo Figaro, Phil Dumatrait, Eddie Bonine, Dontrelle Willis. Better than the Sox, but that isn't saying much. Willis at this point is a lock for a 5+ era. Bonine and Figaro have some stuff, and one of these guys could come through. Otherwise its pretty slim pickings.

Indians: Carlos Carrasco, Mike Gosling, David Huff, Mitch Talbot, and Jess Todd. Not having a clear 5'th starter, one of these guys will be starting. Easily the worst rotation in the central. Nobody in the reserves that has proven they can play in the majors. This rotation is clearly a mess.

Royals: Jorge Campillo, Philip Humber, and Anthony Lerew. Campillo has potential and could step into a spot with little fuss. Humber is bad, but better than any one of the Indians backup (and therefore 5'th starter). Middling.

Looking at these backup starters, I feel blessed that we have who we have. Duensing, Swarzak, and Perkins have proven that they are better than any other backup pitchers aside from possibly Bonine and Campillo. And that possibility is slim.

Dave said...

Edit: I forgot about Sowers for the Indians. Sowers is significantly better than the other backups listed. He also had a 5.25 era last year.

Dave said...

Looking at the rest of the league, I only saw three or four teams with obviously better reserve starters than the twins.

Yankees: This one is conditional on counting Hughes as a reserve starter. Allong with Chad Gaudin the Yanks have two reserves able to step in and be very effective for any period of time required of them.

Brewers: This is kind of a reach, but I think there is potential for Bush, Capuano, and Villanueva. Villanueva is a reliever by trade but has the arm to be put into the rotation. He also misses bats. Capuano and Bush both have ugly stats, but they can both eat innings and I believe they have another couple of sub 5 era seasons left to go.

Reds: Chapman makes it for the Reds despite never pitching in the MLB. Micah Owings isn't bad either, giving the reds two starter caliber players in reserve. I can't wait untill Bailey implodes and Chapman dazzles.

Nationals: Strasburg makes it for the Nats like Chapman does it for the Reds. The problem with the Nats is that they only have 3 established starters, so two of their reserves won't be reserves for long. Even so, they have Craig Stammen, J.D. Martin, Ross Detwiler, Jordan Zimmermann, and of course Strasburg. That makes 3 decent options as reserves. Thats what happens when you hang out in the basement for years.

Jewscott said...

"To be fair, Joe Blanton's career is not exactly an appropriate comparison when trying to project Blackburn either. If Blanton's career K/9 of 5.6 is middling, Blackburn's sub-5.0 K/9 is downright poor. More appropriate positive projections for Blackburn are Jim Kaat and Jim Perry - both of whom had sub-5.0 K/9 career rates and because their HR rates were below 1.0,"


IMO, you're comparing apples to oranges, Parker. Kaat and Perry were starters who averaged 5 to 6 K/9 in an ERA where the league K/9 rate was under 6 (both of whom's career rate take a hit because they pitched into their late 30s/early 40s). Blackburn is a pitcher putting up a sub 5 K/9 rate in his 20s in an era where the league average is closer to 7 (the AL average was 6.9 last year, compared to 5.6 in 1969).

The Silva comp has always made sense (and let's be honest, this isn't the first time this has been used. Baseball Prospectus did it when Blackburn was still a prospect). Both split about 80% of their pitches throwing a traditional four seam fastball and a two-seamer (or cutter as Blackburn calls it). Neither have great grounder rates, but seem to get the groundball when it's needed (Silva perpetually led the team in ground into double plays. Blackburn has led the team in that category the last two years and was second in the AL in 2008). Then there's the middling strikeout rate, high H/9 rates and low BB/9 rates. It's not a 100% match. But really, it's pretty close. Plus, just because someone operates in the same manner as Silva doesn't mean he'll follow the exact same career path. Eventually, Blackburn's arm will crap out. Whether it's 2010 or when he's 40 is the question no one can answer. Work ethic is a good thing, but shoulder and elbow problems happen are things every pitcher deals with. The bigger problem is you can play this game with just about any pitcher in the Twins' rotation (remember Baker's first 9 starts with 14 homeruns allowed). The staff should be dubbed the Johnny Cash memorial pitching staff for the line it walks.

As for depth, it's not too bad. Duensing would have a rotation spot on lock down on most staffs, and while Perkins has become the white devil in most circles, he's lost almost as much velocity as Liriano since 2006 and has gone from throwing his second best pitch in the minors (his curveball) 21% of the time to being unable to throw it. He could heal up and surprise people. Or he could wander down the same ineffective path. We'll find out which one soon enough. But until then, it's not like any teams have Nolan Ryan just sitting in hock as a 6th starter.

Steven Ellingson said...

Thanks for looking that up Dave. Makes me feel better knowing that I wasn't just talking out of my ass. Besides just backups, I have to think there are plenty of teams who have guys slotted into the rotation who project to be worse than Duensing. Although I think the White Sox do have a better rotation than we do, I think it's closer than people think. Peavy is both injury prone (he's not Carl Pavano, but he's been hurt a lot) and looks to take a pretty big hit going from the best pitcher's park in the NL to a good hitter's park in the AL. He is thought of as an "ace", but I don't really see how you project him to be much better than Kevin Slowey.

rghrbek said...

Dave, good job with the research.

Steve, I guess you might be right that we have better depth, but where I disagree, is on defining depth as guys who can fill in for a start or two, or who can really stick. I am suggesting depth should mean sticking.

Duensing, pitched well filling in and deserves a chance, but his AAA numbers suggest he is a similar guy to the rest of the guys you mentioned.

I thought my bigger point was, that we have average to below average depth, if that makes sense. Yup, we have a lot of guys who are good enough to make it to the bigs, because their AAA numbers were fine. not great, but fine.

I believe there is a reason that the Twins have really focused on drafting more power pitchers, and taken chances on some guys who have control issues, recently.

It's because their glut of control, fly ball, contact pitchers is causing a log jam at AAA (or that is my theory). Sure we have depth, but as we saw at the trade deadline, last year, and this off season, other teams want our younger prospects with bigger upside.

My hope is some team like the Nats or Royals, starved for pitching, is willing to give up some really decent prospect for some of our "major league ready" pitching, so we can actually get some value from these guys, as I don't think they will pan out at the MLB level.

I've been wrong before. I'm wrong a lot.

thrylos98 said...

How about a Morris or Erickson comparison for his ceiling? :)

or Joe Mays? :)

Nah...

He is a serviceable 5th starter who unfortunately puts the ball in play way too many times. (like a lot of the Twins' pitchers do)

Nick N. said...

He is a serviceable 5th starter who unfortunately puts the ball in play way too many times. (like a lot of the Twins' pitchers do)

Actually, the rest of the Twins' rotation would all project to have above-average K-rates, with the possible exception of Pavano (and his rate was above par with the Twins last year). That is assuming the Liriano is the fifth starter.

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Anonymous said...

It looks like Blackburn is Carlos Silva afterall.