Monday, June 07, 2010

The Case of Nic Blacburn's Missing K's

The bullpen performed admirably in Oakland yesterday and a late two-run blast by Delmon Young (who had a tremendous series) pulled the Twins within one run, but ultimately the team came up just short in a 5-4 loss.

These factors made it all the more frustrating that Nick Blackburn put the Twins in such a huge hole to begin with. Despite pitching in one of baseball's most pitcher-friendly parks and against one of the worst offenses in the American League, Blackburn lasted just 2 2/3 innings and surrendered five runs on 10 hits.

After a terrible month of April, Blackburn seemed to be coming around in May when he went 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA and made a bid for Pitcher of the Month honors. Now, he's strung together his two worst starts of the year. Last week in Seattle he failed to complete four innings and yesterday he failed to complete even three.

In both cases, the opposing offense was terrible. In both cases, he allowed five runs on 10 hits, putting his team in a huge early hole on the road. In both cases, he failed to strike out a single batter.

That last sentence provides us with a pretty good explanation for Blackburn's struggles. He has now failed to record even one strikeout in five of his 11 starts this season. No other Twins starter has done it once.

Blackburn has never been a strikeout specialist, but his inability to miss bats this year has reached ridiculous levels. Of the 294 batters he's faced, he has struck out 17 of them. His rate of 2.27 strikeouts per nine innings ranks as the worst in all of baseball by a wide margin; next worst is John Lannan at 2.90. The next worst mark in the AL is Mitch Talbot at 3.91.

Blackburn's ability to put "sink" on the ball is a talking point for Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven every time he pitches, but no amount of sink is going to make up for such an exorbitant contact rate and Blackburn doesn't even induce ground balls at an elite rate. His 48.3 ground ball percentage ranks 35th out of 108 qualifying pitchers.

Hitters are making contact with 96 percent of Blackburn's offerings and they're elevating plenty of those pitches, so it should come as no surprise that the league is hitting .338 against the right-hander. This isn't the result of bad luck, as Blackburn's batting average on balls in play isn't too far above the league average and is basically in line with his career norms. It's not that a ridiculous number of balls in play are turning into hits behind Blackburn, it's that he's allowing a ridiculous number of balls in play to begin with.

Whether something is wrong with Blackburn physically or the league has just completely figured him out, something needs to be changed because there's almost no way he'll succeed when allowing this much contact. He's had a tough enough time posting solid numbers with a K/9 rate in the 4 range in years past, doing so with a rate that is close to 2 is basically impossible, especially with a middling grounder rate.

With Blackburn, Brendan Harris and Denard Span all struggling to varying to degrees, Bill Smith's decision to tender them all unnecessary multi-year contracts during the offseason is looking iffy. At least we can look at the numbers and see that Harris and Span have been somewhat unlucky; Blackburn is due for more of the same unless he can get back to striking out a remotely acceptable number of hitters.


John said...

Blackburn has had issues with arm soreness... I wonder if that's the problem. Clearly he is not getting the same results as he has in the past. In 2008 and 2009, he got swinging strikes on 6.5% and 5.4% of pitches, respectively. Now he's at 2.7%.

That is pretty much beyond horrible... no pitcher with significant innings has come even close to that in the past 10 years. He's missing bats at a rate that would have been way below average 100 years ago when strikeouts were far less frequent.

Nonetheless his FIP is 'only' 5.09 (and xFIP of 5.18), which is tolerable for a 5th starter even on a contender. That assumes he can find a middle ground between his hot May and April/June.

rghrbek said...

Nick, excellent post.

It's too early to say which way Blackburn will fall, but I do believe Carlos Silva had two decent first years. as a starter. and once the league figured him out it was ugly.

Although I think Blackburn is a better pitcher through his first two years, I have the same feeling about him.

I hope I am wrong.

8th inning guy said...

To me it seems all his his pitches are too close to the same velocity. He doesn't really throw an effective change up or anything less the a few mph from his fastball. He throws a looping curveball for effect but it's not an out pitch. When a good off speed pitch isn't even in the back of hitters minds you see what happens. These reasons and the glaring raw stats mentioned in the article is what made me wonder why they offered him such a long extension. He's only had two outings all season with less hits than i.p.

Some guys never get any feel for a change up. He seems to be one of them. Everything is hard from this guy. Maybe he should try throwing a splitter. I doubt the twins would let him and it seems like you see less and less pitchers who throw them. But maybe it would get him over the hump. It's turned some pitchers careers around.

Anonymous said...

Carlos silva is 7-0 and easily is having his best season stat wise. But he probably is in a honeymoon stage in the N.L. He'll probably come back down to earth but not blow up like he has for the last 2 years.

frank rizzo

Dave said...

I give the chances of Anderson letting Blackey learn the splitter as slim to none. I have heard him bad mouth the effects of the splitter multiple times over the years and I can't imagine him backing down now.

Bryz said...

@ Anonymous: Jack Moore at FanGraphs discussed Silva's success a couple days ago. After relying primarily on his sinking fastball (reaching above 80% fastballs in 4 previous seasons) he's started to rely on his change-up and slider much more. Moore suggests that even though Silva's repertoire is only average, the introduction of non-fastballs is likely keeping hitters off-balance. This has allowed Silva to easily have a career high in K/9, and surprisingly (well, to me) his BB/9 has stayed right around his career average.

As for Blackburn, he's already been mixing pitches better than Silva, so he can't really make the same adjustment without becoming a junkballer.

I was about to throw in some more stuff about Blackburn's pitch selection and velocity, but it was getting so long that I think I'm just going to turn it into a blog post.

Anonymous said...

Nick is not a big Blackburn fan. I think we've established that.

Guy has terrible periphreals. He's sucked last two games. He is off to a slow start relative to his career.

But look at his career ERA and winning percentage. He's the definition of average. Nobody is calling him an ace. I'd rather have Blackburn as my 4th or 5th starter than what most teams have.

Dick and Bert praise every Twins player as if they are great. It doesn't mean we have to argue against some kind of myth about the guy.

It is like you point at his periphreals to "prove" how he's like basically the worst pitcher in the league while totally ignoring his respectable game results.

Plus, the guy is always better in the second half and is money in big games.

Nick N. said...

Anon, his performance in past years is not really relevant to this post. The fact is that he's been worse this year than in year's past, and that's largely because he's completely lost the ability to strike anyone out. And no, his overall results this year have not been average -- they've been bad.