Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Blackburn's Tumultuous Season

It's funny how people tend to draw non-existent subtexts from internet opinion pieces. As an example, I've written about Nick Blackburn quite a bit this year, and much of that writing has carried a negative tone. Now, any time I write about him I invariably have people accusing me of "hating" Blackburn or going out of my way to disparage him in my columns.

Neither of those things are true, of course. By all accounts, Blackburn is a very nice guy, and I fully appreciate some of the big games he has pitched for the Twins over the first couple years of his major-league career. I like Blackburn. But there's no masking the fact that he's been one of the worst starting pitchers in major league baseball this year.

One of my random preseason predictions this spring was that Blackburn would have a tough season and finish with an ERA north of 5. Now even that seems charitable, as Blackburn sits at the All-Star break carrying a ghastly 6.40 ERA with 100 more hits (134) to his credit than strikeouts (34). On Saturday, Blackburn had perhaps his worst outing of the season, coughing up seven runs on four homers in a crucial match-up against the (then) division-leading Tigers.

It was one of those instances where the starter was clearly left in too long. I think baseball fans have a tendency to rip the manager for leaving in a starter based on hindsight judgment far too often, but this was a case where everyone watching the game could clearly see that Blackburn had nothing. He'd started out the fifth inning by allowing a lead-off double to the No. 9 hitter, Ramon Santiago, and issuing a walk to Austin Jackson, putting two on with nobody out for Johnny Damon.

I tweeted: "I think this would be an appropriate time to bring in Duensing. Blackburn is overmatched." Undoubtedly, most Twins fans shared that sentiment. Blackburn had already allowed six hits -- all of them extra-baggers -- and was preparing to face a tough left-handed hitter in a one-run game with the outcome still hanging in the balance. Duensing was warming in the bullpen. Unfortunately, the southpaw reliever didn't come in until after Blackburn surrendered a mammoth three-run shot to Damon, turning a 4-3 deficit into a 7-3 deficit and crippling the Twins' chances for a crucial victory.

Blackburn now owns a 1-6 record and 10.00 ERA since the start of June. On the season, opponents are hitting .333/.378/.565 against him. (For reference, perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera's career line is .314/.386/.550). Blackburn was reportedly on the hot seat during his June 29 start against the Tigers after failing to complete even four innings in four of his previous five starts, but managed to salvage his rotation spot with a solid (but very ordinary) outing in which he allowed four runs over seven innings in a win.

In the two starts since, Blackburn has reverted right back to his old ways, allowing 14 runs (11 earned) on 18 hits -- including five homers -- over 10 1/3 innings. Yet, Ron Gardenhire came out on Sunday and announced that Blackburn would stunningly remain in the rotation after the All-Star break.

Blackburn's numbers this year are jaw-droppingly bad. Most pitchers in the league with results like that have been dropped from their respective rotations long ago. I understand that Blackburn has earned extra trust with his two strong seasons and with his very good month of May this year, but he's only managed one quality start in his past eight turns on the mound and the league is hitting at an MVP-caliber clip against him. He can't strike anyone out, his command is deteriorating, and he visibly lacks confidence on the mound.

I compared Blackburn to John Lannan a couple weeks ago, noting that the two pitchers have followed very similar paths in their major-league careers and both are experiencing a great deal of adversity here in 2010. Much like Blackburn, Lannan had gained a level of trust in Washington, having been the Nats' Opening Day starter for two straight seasons. Yet, when Lannan's ugly numbers and absurdly low K-rate made it clear that he wasn't equipped to be starting the majors, the Nationals -- who have essentially nothing to play for at this point -- made the difficult decision to sending their former ace lefty to the minors. Unfortunately, Ron Gardenhire and the Twins remain too attached to Blackburn to do the same.

The Twins managed to make the playoffs in 2006 despite a disastrously bad campaign from Carlos Silva, but this '10 squad doesn't have the luxury of a Cy Young winning Johan Santana or a rookie version of Francisco Liriano at the helm. With an already shaky rotation, the Twins can't afford to be sending the league's most hittable pitcher to the hill every fifth day and hoping the offense can churn out enough runs to eek out a victory.

I like Blackburn. I hope he can get things turned around. But right now, there's just no way he should be in this rotation. He's costing the Twins way too many meaningful games.


Ed Bast said...

It's unfortunate, but on-field performance has little bearing on Gardy's managerial decisions. Blacky is one of his guys, probably a nice fellow who "battles" and "plays the game right." These qualities are much more important to Gardenhire than those that actually impact the game, e.g. his inability to get hitters out.

Ditto why the club refuses to improve their bullpen with talented guys in AAA (Waldrop & Slama).

Between continually trotting out Blacky, conceding Sunday games, and the like, Gardy has cost this team valuable games in the 1st half. Blacky has underperformed, sure, but at some point it's the manager's job to stop being a pal and make a tough decision for the good of the team.

Matt said...

I understand giving Blackburn a chance to salvage those first few bad June starts, but this is just plain crazy. If nothing else, he needs to go to AAA to gain some confidence and *gasp* maybe learn a secondary pitch that can be thrown for strikes?!?!
It seems as though he just can't miss bats and when he throws a breaking ball, it has ZERO bite to it and rarely floats over for a strike. All hitters have to do is "low let it go, high let it fly" and he's toast.
I don't know what Gardy's thinking here, but Blackie needs a turn in the minors, and we'll see where he is in six weeks for September call ups.

Anonymous said...

Watching Gardy's seemingly unilateral approach to managing is akin to witnessing George Bush's unyielding, defiant and sycophant-based eight-year debacle at the helm. Many of us could probably do a better job if given an opportunity.

rghrbek said...

Over the last two years, I've been amazed at the numbers Blackie has been able to put up, considering he is not a good pitcher. Not good numbers, but not terrible either. 5th starter stuff.

He is barely over league average in ground balls for his career, yet broadcasters and the Twins refer to him as a ground ball pitcher.

He strikes out nobody, gives up more hits than innings pitched, and yet the last two seasons he wasn't terrible.

Many of us predicted the league would catch up to him and his luck would run out (similar to how it went down with Silva).

It's just happening now. Thank god we signed him when we had options on him for those 4 years.

Anonymous said...

Although I'm sure discussions with the field staff are part of the process, isn't it the responsibility of Bill Smith to make a decision on Blackburn?

USAFChief said...

Great post Nick.

Anonymous said...

i imagine that gardy has a sign in the clubhouse, like the little rascals, except his says "Banjo-hitting, meatball throwing, I stay on the team because I'm a nice guy clubhouse - no sabremetricians or stat-heads allowed."

Ed Bast said...


It's pretty easy for Gardy to make a decision on Blackburn; next time his turn comes up in the rotation, simply erase BLACKY from the lineup card and replace with DUENSING.

However, since Gardy loves Blacky (he's even got a pet name!), and would never do anything to hurt his feelings no matter how many games it costs the team, I do think it's time for Bill Smith to step in and send him down.

Or, you know, step in and fire his incompetent manager.

Jesse said...

I agree that Blackburn shouldn't be in this rotation. But the second part of that equation is: who replaces him? And people tend to forget that Duensing hasn't started this season, with all 38 of his appearances coming out of the 'pen. He can't simply be slipped into the rotation if he's expected to hold that spot down for an extended period of time. He'll get stretched out in Rochester and, if Blackburn is still struggling, he'll take Nick's place. And it's not like there are any other arms in AAA that have shown they can come up and contribute right now.

So yeah, it did make sense that Blackburn had the opportunities to redeem himself after those first few terrible starts. And now the team is doing what they can internally to replace him. I'm not sure what else people expected him to do, other than over-pitch Duensing into the role, call up an undeserving arm from Rochester or send a message to his rotation that would have said "a few bad starts and you're done". Sure, this could have been done one or two starts ago, but you need time to determine what the problem is before you diagnose it.

Nick's right--Blackburn doesn't belong in the rotation. But considering Gardenhire's options, there wasn't much else he could do.

Ed Bast said...

How many practice starts does Duensing need? Blacky's turn isn't up until when, next Monday or Tuesday? That's 9 or 10 days since Blacky's most recent terrible start. He's been excruciatingly bad for 2/3 of the season, so it's not like this has crept up on the Twins. They couldn't have started to "stretch" out Duensing in longer bullpen sessions a little earlier?

Why can't he make a start in Rochester this week and take Blacky's spot when it comes up?

Dave said...

I really only see blacky getting out of the rotation on the DL. Gardy isn't an idiot like you guys seem to think. If decisions seem obvious to us, trust me, they are obvious to him as well. I truly believe Blacky is dealing with minor injury/dead arm, and the twins think that the extended all star layoff will be enough rest to get him into form. If the next start is as bad as the last, look for a trip to the DL.

Nick N. said...

I truly believe Blacky is dealing with minor injury/dead arm, and the twins think that the extended all star layoff will be enough rest to get him into form.

Has his arm been dead all year long? With the exception of May, he's been terrible basically all season, and even then it's more likely that he had a run of good fortune than anything.

Anonymous said...

replace him with duensing. even though he can only pitch around 3 innings, that is all blackburn is doing right now. at least duensing can give you quality innings. keep blackie around to pitch in games where we are losing by a ton. no pressure, he can get his work in. or send him to AAA. i don't think the decision is that difficult. 3-4 quality innings and a chance to win the game vs 0-4 innings which are very likely bad innings and a big hole for the struggling offense to work itself out of. what is the downside?

Bryz said...

I truly believe Blacky is dealing with minor injury/dead arm, and the twins think that the extended all star layoff will be enough rest to get him into form.

Then how do you explain Blackburn's velocity on all of his pitches increasing this year? If he had a dead arm, his velocity would have noticeably decreased.

Ed Bast said...

Dave, you sound exactly like Gardy or a Twins player: there's always an excuse or a reason for bad performance, isn't there? Mauer's "tired" or "banged up". Target Field is too hard to hit home runs in. The Twins have a habit of putting pitchers on th DL after a bad start for "arm fatigue" and the like - wouldn't want to hurt anyone's feelings would we?

There's no accountability for this team. How about this equally simply theory: Blacky is physically fine and pitching terribly.

Read what Blacky said after the last debacle: "I'm sick of it." Seems like he's the only one who's willing to admit he's underperforming.