Monday, January 09, 2012

Is Nick Blackburn Undervalued?

One couldn't be blamed for writing off Nick Blackburn as an afterthought in the Twins' 2012 starting pitching equation.

After all, he's been pretty bad over the past two seasons. In fact, "pretty bad" might be an understatement – he's been one of baseball's most hittable pitchers, prone to stretches of mind-numbingly horrible performance. His once-premier walk rate has deteriorated into mediocrity, leaving him with little in the way of strengths to fall back on.

So it's easy to forget the fact that, prior to 2010, Blackburn was a pretty dang valuable pitcher. After emerging as a legitimate prospect in 2007, he became a staple in the Twins' rotation, hurling around 200 innings with an above-average ERA in both 2008 and 2009.

After that '09 campaign, the Twins signed Blackburn to a four-year extension worth $14 million. It was a totally unnecessary move that has unsurprisingly backfired, but there was valid reason for the club's faith in the right-hander. Over that two-year stretch, Blackburn was indisputably their most reliable starting pitcher.

Yes, he has been mostly a mess over the past two seasons, and there's a temptation to profile those struggles as symptomatic of his non-dominant, pitch-to-contact approach. But that was the same style he employed while serving as a steady boon amidst the rotation in his first two seasons.

Indeed, his troubles in 2010 and 2011 have very likely stemmed from health issues more than anything else. And while that's not reason to excuse them, it's a fact that should provide fans with hope that he can return to form if his latest surgery takes.

In his first year at Target Field, Blackburn finished with a 5.42 ERA and career-low 3.8 K/9 rate over 161 innings. Ugly numbers, to be sure, but after the season it was revealed that he had (perhaps foolishly) been pitching through elbow discomfort for much of the year. Shortly after the Twins were ousted from the playoffs, he underwent minor surgery on the elbow.

Early on in 2011, Blackburn appeared to have returned to form. Over the first three months of the season, he looked as good as ever, turning in a 3.64 ERA over 101 innings. He was on pace for another solid 200-inning campaign, but things quickly derailed around the halfway point; after the start of July, Blackburn made only 10 more starts, posting a 6.32 ERA over 47 innings while allowing 70 hits and 26 walks.

The sagging control stood out as the most worrisome red flag for the righty, who even during his rough spells had traditionally thrown the ball over the plate. After issuing four walks while recording just four outs against the Yankees on August 21st, Blackburn was pulled and shut down for the season. He'd later be diagnosed with an entrapped nerve in his forearm, for which he underwent surgery in late September.

This procedure was more serious than the one in 2010, as it left Blackburn in a splint for six weeks, but he's expected to be ready for spring training. He'll be one of several question marks among the club's starting pitching crop this year, but it's important to bear in mind that when he's been healthy, Blackburn has been a legitimate asset to the rotation.

His $4.75 million salary – guaranteed as the result of that misguided extension inked two years ago – currently looks like a liability. But it's entirely possible that by the end of the season, it'll look like a solid bargain.

Like with so many other Twins players this year, it will all come down to health.

26 comments:

mgraves said...

Was unaware of all of the injury issues. This is reason for hope.

Aren't Blackburn's month by month numbers, however, erratic even in 08-09, e.g. much better in May and September than in the other months?

Nate Gilmore said...

Blackburn has followed a pattern the last three seasons. He settles into a groove by May or June and turns in some great outings, and by the All Star Break, he always seems to be one of the team's most reliable starters. But then he encounters some troubles in July and August for a rocky second half. His career pre-ASB ERA is 4.23. After the break it jumps to 4.95.

TT said...

"In his first year at Target Field, Blackburn finished with a 5.42 ERA and career-low 3.8 K/9 rate over 161 innings."

In 2010, Blackburn got batters out at exactly the same rate as he had the previous two years. His problem was that he gave up a lot more home runs.

In 2011, he got a lot fewer outs per batter faced than he had. But the rate at which he gave up home runs went back down.

I don't know what that means, except that his problems of the last two years may be unrelated to one another. At least if you judge by the results.

Nick N. said...

Aren't Blackburn's month by month numbers, however, erratic even in 08-09, e.g. much better in May and September than in the other months?

Yeah, I don't know that he's ever going to be a guy who consistently shuts down opposing lineups for an entire season -- with the amount of contact he allows, he's always going to be susceptible to bad stretches when his stuff flattens out.

However, in spite of his flaws, he's always managed to maintain respectable numbers when not dealing with a notable injury that eventually required surgery. I don't know that he gets enough credit for that.

Anonymous said...

This may be a little off topic, but it's an idea I had when I was reading this.

Before I got to the part about Blackburn's injury troubles I was wondering if coaching was part of the problem. Then I remembered the line from the front office when people used to criticize Dick Such. After these guys leave the Twins they end up doing worse.

So I'm just wondering if that's a valid measurement back then, is it still valid and what does it show. Not only for pitching, but also for hitting and defense. Might be a good idea for a post sometime.

Anonymous said...

The health issues worry me more than give me hope, and not only for Blackburn. Of the starting pitchers, Baker Blackburn and Liriano had injury problems last year. They are coming back to the same medical staff. Much has been talked about the health of Mauer and Morneau, but the health of the pitchers will be as important.

Jack Steal said...

Nick,

There is nothing wrong with being optimistic but do you really believe pitcher Nick Blackburn will have a bounceback season? He is inconsistent and injury prone just like Liriano, Baker, and Marquis. In fact the Pavano extension that you were against looks pretty good right now. You wanted Liriano extended to a 3-yr deal worth $28-30 million (so did I) last year. Thank goodness the team did not go down that street. My question to you is what will the rotation look like in 2013? After this year Liriano, Pavano, and Marquis are gone, and Baker has a $9 million option (let's hope team declines it). Blackburn should be doing something else for a living and is our #4 pitcher..

Jim H said...

Injury prone labels are interesting and sometimes inaccurate. Pavano certainly earned that label in New York but over the last 3 years, he has been generally healthy and generally effective. Most of the Twins players who have had injury problems over the past couple of years, are certainly young enough to perhaps have long stretches of injury free play. Perhaps even years worth, assuming the injuries aren't chronic.

I have been wondering what is reasonable to expect in turns of bounceback years from all the injuried and underperforming players in 2012. I would think something approaching a good year from guys like Mauer, Blackburn, Capps and Baker. Reasonably healthy, reasonably effective.

I have no idea what to expect from Liriano. Span, I would think is reasonably likely to recover from his concussion issues and perform like he was early last year.

A lot has been speculated on concerning Morneau. I think CMath's take over at Twinkie Town is about as likely as any. There really is no way to know, but he could be pretty decent by the end of next year.

T. Boone Pickens said...

I declared on this very blogsite some time ago that Blackburn would be around longer than Slowey.

Anonymous said...

Blackie will finish 20-7 with a 2.88 ERA, and will hit 2 HR in inter-league play. Butera will drive in 110 and be voted starting catcher in the All Star game. Baby J. will play 162 while winning the Triple Crown. Gardy, however, will still be fat.

Anonymous said...

Blackburn always allowed too many baserunners even back in his 08-09 "glory days". He has to rely far too heavily on the fielders behind him and hope for double plays. Injuries have played a factor but could it also be that major league hitters have figured Blackie out to some extent and that he doesn't have the pitches or ability to adjust and get hitters our consistently. Concerns...red flags should be raised, it is a mistake to rely on him as a member of the rotation. His smoke and mirrors game is up and will continue to get hit hard as long as he's in a Twins uniform. His lack of control in 2011 was especially troubling for a guy that already has such a small margin for error. The reason they haven't cut ties with him is that poorly thought out contract...the same reason they don't just cut ties with Nishioka...it's about the money but also about not wanting to admit they were wrong. Did Bill Smith sign him too? Did Bill Smith ever make a move that worked out? No wonder he got the axe.

jhm47 said...

When a "pitch to contact" guy like Blackburn has an ineffective infield like the Twins had last year, they begin to get far too fine with their pitches. This leads to more walks, and a poor mental attitude. Hopefully, we will have much improved play at SS and 2B in '12, and Blackie will be able to return to his earlier form.

Anonymous said...

Blackie is the poster boy for the Twins misguided pitch to contact philosophy.

He's nothing more than a below average starter. Even in his glory Years of 09, he led the AL in hits given up with 240. He can't throw the ball past anyone, and he has never had a high ceiling.

When he's healthy and on, he can have some nice stretches. But over the course of a season and a career, he's going to get ripped more often than not. How many times have the Twins been in a 6-0 hole by the 2nd inning when Blackie starts a game? Too many times...

He should never have been given a 4 year deal. He has no trade value, he's nothing more than a number 5 starter on any decent pitching staff.
Typical of the Twins to overvalue one of their own...

Matt said...

The Twins are delusional in their roster building philosophy. Get ready for another 90-loss season, whether the M&M boys are healthy and ready to go or not.

Mike said...

"The Twins are delusional in their roster building philosophy. Get ready for another 90-loss season, whether the M&M boys are healthy and ready to go or not."

It's still utterly amazes me that so many people act like 90 losses is inevitable based on last season. Just like winning the central in 2011 was inevitable to most Twins fans based on 2010.

I'm not expecting great things from the 2012 Twins, but I'd be willing to bet that 2011 will be shown to be an outlier of a year by a wide margin.

The defense should be better this year, primarily in the outfield, but in the infield as well. Obviously, as a ground ball pitcher, infield defense will likely be more important for Blackburn. A lot of the blame has to be given to Blackburn, but it's also tough to expect a guy to do well when he's frequently being asked to get 4 or 5 outs in an inning because his defense makes errors and just simply doesn't make plays due to poor execution or poor range.

Anonymous said...

Off topic but this is essential reading for all twins fans, especially those who defend our owners cutting payroll in Year 3 of a publicly financed stadium:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/marinersblog/2017206419_how_the_myth_that_cost-effecti.html

Anonymous said...

Mike...
You are giving Blackburn way too much credit. The only guy who gets ripped more visciously than Blackey...is Duensing when he faces a righthander. Obviously, the defense is bad and that contributes to his struggles.

I could see the Twins rebounding and being competetive, but I could also see another 90 loss season. Not sure which way it will go. They need a lot of things to go right in order to be competetive.

The long term outlook is pretty bleak. You can't win if you cant pitch, and there is nothing on the horizon that points to anything other than mediocre starting pitching, at best. And that bullpen..?

Mike said...

Blackburn has shown every year that he can be very good for long stretches. He's also shown he can be very bad. I said that much of the blame needs to be placed on Blackburn. If you think that all of the blame needs to be put on Blackburn, you're giving the 2011 Twins' defense far too much credit.

That defense made every pitcher for the Twins look worse than they really are. It wasn't a surprise to me that Baker still put together a pretty good season, given that he strikes people out without being as inconsistent and wild as Liriano.

Blackburn is a groundball pitcher who was relying on Nishioka and Plouffe and Tolbert (and Valencia) for most of the season as his infielders. He didn't have much of a chance to put together a solid full season given the defense behind him.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this kind of the soft mentality that plagues the Twins? Even their bloggers are trying to re-tool Blackburn into a legit middle of the rotation starter - grasping at straws to this level smacks of desperation and is clearly an attitude that the Twins brass have shared in the past few seasons . . it leaves the Twins destined for only one place, mediocrity.

Anonymous said...

Template for Twins blog this offseason:

"Player X: Primed for Bounceback?

In posting a [6.50 ERA/.300 OPS/.600 fielding %] Player X had a poor 2011. After the season, however it was revealed that he was dealing with bilateral [insert body part] weakness. [Insert single stat from 3-5 seasons ago] suggests he's capable of being a valuable player. Will he bounce back in 2012? It all depends on his health."

Anonymous said...

Mike,

Blackburn is below average in every statiscal category, with BB's being the exception. And in a few categories, he ranks almost dead last in MLB.
Why is this hard to grasp?

Nick N. said...

Even their bloggers are trying to re-tool Blackburn into a legit middle of the rotation starter - grasping at straws to this level smacks of desperation and is clearly an attitude that the Twins brass have shared in the past few seasons . .

There's no effort to re-tool Blackburn as anything here. When he's been healthy, he HAS been a legit middle of the rotation starter. That is a statistically evidenced fact.

Template for Twins blog this offseason...

After the 2011 season, many fans seem to be under the impression that most of this team's players suck. It seems appropriate to remind people that these players have demonstrated in the past that they can be productive, and they're all still relatively young. It is folly to overreact to one season where everything went wrong.

Blackburn is below average in every statiscal category, with BB's being the exception. And in a few categories, he ranks almost dead last in MLB.

Blackburn finished with an above-average ERA in 2008 and 2009, while leading the team in innings both years. His last two seasons have been marred by injuries that required surgery.

When he's been healthy, he's the prototype for how low-strikeout, pitch-to-contact guys can be effective. It's unfortunate that the Twins have sought to build almost exclusively around these types of pitchers, but that shouldn't be held against him.

Matt said...

My whole take on delusional is this:
- Blame a 99 loss season on injuries, ignoring the fact that your defensive middle infield and corner outfield was awful, even when healthy.
- Decide that you're in it to win it in 2012, and sign a bunch of older, mediocre players with significant injury history on the cheap to count on to fill holes.
- Do absolutely nothing with your starting rotation (Marquis reeks of Ramon Ortiz, Livan Hernandez, and Sidney Ponson, which don't count at all), thinking that your current group can return you to contention.
- Leave one of MLB's worst bullpens intact, minus your best pitcher (well, lots can change between now and Spring).

Sure, they can win 90 games if all the chips fall into place. But it's more likely they lose 90 again, even with the M&M boys healthy.

Mike said...

The corner outfield in 2011 was the same as it was in 2010. That's a poor excuse to say that 99 losses wasn't attributable to injuries. The starting rotation was pretty much the same as well, as were the corner infielders, center fielder, catcher, and half the bullpen.

The differences between personnel in 2011 and 2010 was bullpen (which was significant), and middle infield.

If people want to live in make-believe land where significant injuries to Mauer, Span, Young, Baker, Morneau, Nishioka, Casilla, and Kubel don't matter, that's fine.

But on that note, if the problem was corner outfield defense and middle infield defense, both of those areas have been improved pretty significantly this offseason. The guess that a 90+ loss season is on the way is primarily a knee-jerk reaction to one bad season.

Mike said...

@ anonymous- if you're going to imply that I'm incapable of understanding your argument, at least post your name so I know who I'm responding to.

Again, if you think that poor defense, particularly poor middle infield defense, didn't make Blackburn look worse than he really is, go ahead and think that. I'm going to go ahead and understand that defense is important to pitchers, especially pitch-to-contact pitchers. Perhaps you think that Blackburn should have been able to field all nine positions as well, but unfortunately, the reality is that he had to depend on some really unreliable defense behind him last year.

I apparently can't make it clear enough that I'm not saying Blackburn has been a good pitcher. So here it is: Blackburn has not been a good pitcher the past two years. But I'm not so naive as to think that it is entirely his fault that his defense was a huge let-down last year.

Anonymous said...

http://www.nickstwinsblog.com/2010/02/sizing-up-nick-blackburn.html

In this entry, from just prior to 2010 you seemed to say that the statistically evident fact was that Blackburns performance wasn't sustainable. Now you think that was the real Nick Blackburn and that only injuries turned him into the pitcher we've seen in 10 & 11.

I don't know exactly which pitcher he is but I'm not about to get excited about someone so hittable.