Last night in his first major league victory, Nick Blackburn kept a very good hitting Indians line-up subdued. "We faced him a couple of times last year," said Twins masher and enemy of the Baggy Travis Hafner. "He throws a sinker and does a good job putting the ball on the ground. I had some good pitches to hit, but rolled over on them [grounded out]." Platoon veteran David Dellucci echoed Hafner's quote saying, " "Blackburn pitched everybody a different way every time they came up. He's got a good sinker."
Not everybody shares that sentiment. Some have already suggested that because he is a control-artist that lacks a biting 'out-pitch' that he is somewhat susceptible to left-handed batters. Over the first four starts, the opposite is true. In 55 plate appearances against right-handed batters, the opponents have been hitting .333/.370/.375. Lefties, on the other hand (punny), are batting .239/.271/.348 in 48 plate appearances against Blackburn. What's more is that all five of his doubleplays were started by left-handed batters. Minor League Ball.com's John Sickles wrote that "From a sabermetric standpoint, I am not enamored of the poor strikeout rate, but his control is sharp enough for him to help out as a fifth starter/long relief type. Grade C+." Conversely, Dave Cameron (USS Mariner) wrote at the FansGraph blog that "[w]hile this isn’t as sexy as blowing hitters away with 96 MPH fastballs or a power curve, the combination of throwing strikes and getting ground balls is a proven winner. This is the Aaron Cook/Jake Westbrook path to success - pound the strike zone with pitches at the knees, don’t put anyone on base without making them swing, and let your infielders do the work."
So far, that is the recipe for success. Certainly a 12% strikeout rate will lift eyebrows when attempting to gauge a prospect but couple that with a 2% walk rate and a groundball rate encroaching 60% and you get a major league pitcher. Blackburn has provided positive results for the team. In his four starts he is averaging Game Score of 54 - above the quality threshold - and has yet to yield a home run in his 25 innings of work. In those innings Blackburn has held a 58% groundball rate and only allowed solid, line-drive contact on 10% of balls put in play - his .329 babip is somewhat high for a groundball pitcher. If Blackburn is able to keep his groundball rate above 55% he will put himself in position of success. Last year, Fausto Carmona, Felix Hernandez and Chien-Ming Wang all finished with groundball rates over 55% and all finished with at least 14 victories.
Blackburn, like a Brian Bannister, suffers from being consistently overlooked because he does not produce gaudy strikeout totals or light up a radar gun. In the 7th round of that same draft, the Baltimore Orioles selected Joe Coppinger, Blackburn's rotation-mate in college. Coppinger never made it above high-A with the Orioles while Blackburn just finished a shutout of the Cleveland Indians in his 4th major league start. This trend would continue throughout his career.
As the 29th round of the 2001 amateur draft approached the Twins, the organization looked to pad the farm system's pitching portfolio. After all the Twins had used 13 of the 28 previous rounds to choose hurlers and it has been this philosophical mission of building around pitching where the Twins have found success. They develop from within instead of completing for overpriced free agent pitchers on the open market. 856 players had been selected before the Twins selected Oklahoma native Robert Nicholas Blackburn. Blackburn had carved himself a good college career at Seminole State College, a ju-co in Oklahoma that produced other major leaguers such as Eric Gagne and Lew Ford, but as a late round selection Blackburn's major league path was far from guaranteed. To date, of the 13 pitchers picked prior to Blackburn, only one of them has seen a major league mound, San Diego's Rule 5 steal Kevin Cameron who the Twins picked 13 rounds in front of Blackburn. This once again highlights the nature of uncertainty of the major league draft.
As a 20 year-old, Blackburn began his professional career at Elizabethton in 2002 along side highly touted 19-year-old Scott Tyler (who was the 2nd round pick following Joe Mauer). Tyler had the power and stuff to amass strikeouts by the dozens while Blackburn was more technical, relying on keeping additional baserunners off the bases and his defense to support him when groundballs came their way. As Blackburn sputtered to a 3-3 record in his 13 starts, Tyler whizzed to an 8-1 record in his 13. In 67 innings pitched, Blackburn struck out 62 and walked only 20. Tyler, on the other hand, struck out 92 in his 68 innings and had a 2.91 ERA in comparison to Blackburn's inflated 4.97. In 2003 both right-handers were elevated to then Midwest League affiliate Quad City where they experienced growing pains. Blackburn, in his 76 innings, finished 2-9 with a 4.86 ERA. He struck out only 40 batters in that period. Tyler continued to strike out opponents (110 in 103 innings) but walked 82 batters ending with a WHIP of 1.65 (Blackburn's was significantly lower at 1.24). In 2004, both Blackburn and Tyler began the season with Quad City (only now they were the newly anointed "Swing of the Quad Cities") but this time the experience proved to help the two pitchers win. Tyler finished the year 7-4 with a 2.60 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 104 innings. Blackburn went 6-4 in 86 innings pitched with a 2.79 ERA. When the Twins shuffled newly acquired Francisco Liriano from high-A to double-A, the Twins opted to bring Blackburn up to high-A over Tyler to finish the 2004 season. Over the course of 37 innings, Blackburn struck out 21 and issued only 7 walks. He was hit hard, as evident by his ERA that was above 6.00, but he threw well enough in his 7 starts to earn the right to begin 2005 with the high-A team.
It was around this time that it became apparent that the Twins valued Blackburn's ability to disperse outs through groundballs while Tyler's "fascist" strikeout approach was leading to erratic tendencies. Plus, as many washed-up prospects soon discover, hitters can hit fastballs. In 2005 Tyler pitching in 118 innings for the Miricle and struck out 109 in his first season of high-A ball. Unfortunately for Tyler, he also surrendered 18 home runs and walked another 48 batters. He finished the season 7-8 with a 3.96 ERA. Following the 2005 season, the Twins packaged up Tyler with Travis Bowyer for Florida's Luis Castillo. Tyler failed to pitch above double-A for the Marlins and has since moved to the Athletics organization where he currently in the bullpen for the Texas League affiliate.
In 93 innings with Fort Myers that season, Nick Blackburn struck out 55 but only allowed 5 home runs and just 16 walks. When New Britain was looking for another starting pitcher, they pulled Nick Blackburn up. In his first exposure to double-A, Blackburn tossed 49 innings, struck out 27 and walked only 10. He had the lowest WHIP on the team (0.92) and only surrendered one home run. Blackburn tossed 14 innings at triple-A Rochester to finish the year as guys like Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano were called up to Minnesota.
In 2006 Blackburn pitched a full season at double-A New Britain and threw 132 innings while finishing 7-8 with a 4.42 ERA. The organization, still not convinced if he was a starter or reliever, had him start 19 games and relieving in 11 more. Because of these results, Baseball America did not consider Blackburn one of the organization's top ten prospect to open the 2007 season (they didn't even project him to be in the 2010 rotation). Blackburn did throw better then the standard numbers suggest. His FIP (3.97) was lower than his overall ERA (4.42), his strikeout-to-walks (81-to-37) was strong and his groundball ratio (48%) merited a second look at the right-handed prospect. This was overshadowed by Matt Garza who during the 2006 season ascended from high-A to triple-A, posting sexy strikeout-to-walk numbers (154-to-32) and an absurdly low WHIP (0.88). As Garza was striking out nearly 28% of all batters faced, Blackburn finished 2006 with his highest strikeout rate of his younger career: 14%.
Last year the talk of the organization was Kevin Slowey. In 2006, Slowey had climbed from high-A to double-A accumulating 151 strikeouts (26%) and only allowing 22 walks (4%) in 148 innings. This earned him the number three overall Twins prospect (Garza was considered number one). Making 20 starts and throwing over 133 innings on his way to a 10-5 record, Slowey continued his control-based regiment in triple-A, striking out 107 (20%) and walking just 18 (3%). This stinginess with free passes and the ability to get strikeouts obtained Slowey a call-up to the big club. At the major league level, Slowey discovered that simply pounding the strike zone does not produce the same results as it had in the minors - this time it resulted in 16 home runs in just 66 innings. In spite of that, Slowey still finished 4-1, completing the season with a 14-6 record split between Rochester and Minnesota. Blackburn, meanwhile, started the season with double-A New Britain on his third tour of the Eastern League but was promoted to Rochester after compiling a 3-1 record with a 3.08 ERA in 33 innings of work. In that short amount of time Blackburn had stuck out 11% of batters faced and walked only 4%.
While Twins followers fawned over the Matt Garza's and Kevin Slowey's in 2007, Nick Blackburn's stock continued to rise. Selected for the Arizona Fall League, Blackburn threw 22 very strong innings, striking out 20 and walking only 2 - culminating the season with being honored as the MVP of the championship game. Baseball America shifted gears all-together and christened the number one prospect for the Minnesota Twins, declaring that Blackburn had the organization's best fastball and best control.
Because he doesn't strike out large quantities of batters at a time, Blackburn's ability will always be questioned. Results will have to speak for themselves.