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.