Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Where Does Nick Blackburn Go From Here?

Nick Blackburn is of that cut from utilitarian ilk, plodding, methodical and workmanlike.  He appears of the caliber that supplies thousands of man-hours with nary a thanks, nor the ingrained desire to recieve one.  He bridged the rotation from March until the last night in September, making the most starts of anyone in a Twins uniform (33) and working the most innings (193).  On top of that, he was given the start in the biggest of the 163 games played all year - a game in which he made just one mistake to Jim Thome, a player that has capitalized on Twins pitchers' mistakes for eons (hitting 55 career home runs so far).  Yet it is as if fans and analysts have already dismissed him; there's Baker, Liriano, Slowey, Perkins and The Other Guy.  When Blackburn's early spring training knee issue came to light recently, the matter took a backseat to the more popular media stories of Boof Bonser and Joe Nathan's respective shoulders, Joe Mauer's back and the OctoMom's fertilizer fluid donor.  It would seem that he would have trouble finding a shower if he were lit on fire.
Coming into spring training, the Twins starting pitchers have their careers well defined.  Scott Baker secured several years this past offseason with a long-term contract.  Francisco Liriano has been the golden child since 2006 and just needs that full season back to prove it before cashing in.  Kevin Slowey is next on the list obtain his tenured contract.  Glen Perkins has a solid minor league pedigree, a Minnesota birthright and a left-handed throwing arm.  Nick Blackburn is the odd-man out of the rotation.
To be blunt, his moderate success was somewhat hollow.  While Blackburn worked well enough to hold the rotation together for the duration of the 2008 season, internally, the front office began to look elsewhere at the trade deadline, specifically asking the Mariners about overpriced starter Jarrod Washburn in order to place Blackburn in the bullpen.  It wasn't that he was terrible in the second-half but his peripherals took a nasty left-turn.  In his 118 first-half innings, Blackburn possessed a 4.87 K/9 and a 1.37 BB/9 while giving up 0.91 HR/9.  His final 75 innings witnessed a significant drop in strikeouts (3.84 K/9) and a walks inflation (2.52 BB/9) and he began giving up an alarming amount of home runs (1.32 HR/9).  This was obviously the byproduct of pitching more innings in a single-season than he had in any other minor league year.  In addition to that digression midseason, his 4.04 ERA was controlled by the fact that he was not credited 15 runs due to shoddy defense. This was the second-most among pitchers who threw a minimum of 190 innings, trailing the White Sox Gavin Floyd who had 19.  With those runs debited to his account, Blackburn had a 4.75 RA.  Among that same group of pitchers that threw 190 innings, Blackburn was third from the bottom in K/9 with 4.47.  Unlike the aforementioned Perkins who had a low K/9 as well (4.41 K/9), Perkins had a solid 8.76 K/9 in 311 minor league innings while Blackburn managed a 4.90 K/9 in 450 innings.  Perkins's past provides opportunity for a rebound as Blackburn is probably destined to have one under 5.0.  
At 27 in 2009, Blackburn is as close to a finished product as you are going to get.  His repertoire does not feature any particular strikeout pitch (his two best WHIFF pitches - slider and change - he throws less than 16% of the time combined and even then they are both well-under .200 to be consider a true strikeout out-pitch).  His development pattern does not support the idea that his strikeout rate will spike either.  At this point in his career, he is what he is, a guy that doesn't issue free passes and is indebted to the play of the seven other guys behind him.     
So where does Blackburn project in the future?  The Twins once had the identical pitcher named Carlos Silva. Both Silva and Blackburn demonstrated excellent control, worked for groundball contact and chewed up innings.  If it were not for being delivered three years apart and on separate continents, you would suspect that they were fraternal twins.  Silva's career arc should be a strong message to Blackburn.  The Twins balked at paying Silva any more than his market value (and rightly so) when he reached free agency and the organization simply pulled the Chief from the Pitchers' Kleenex box, disposed of him and up popped Blackburn, a pitcher groomed with the identical skillset - all for a fraction of the price.  Because of this commonality, it is apparent that Nick Blackburn will suffer a similar fate as Silva: become a former Twin. 
Blackburn's current value should not be understated.  His contract is cheap and under control for two more seasons (he was worth $11.2 million while earning only $450,000).  His ability to alleviate usage of the bullpen is noteworthy as well as his miserly base-on-ball allowance.  The problem is, this is the type of performance that other organizations overvalue for the wrong reasons, and end up overexerting themselves financially to acquiring through free agency or through trades.  Fortunately, the Twins farm system is laden with control artists in waiting.  The 2009 Baseball Prospectus suggests in the players' comments that "[Kevin] Mulvey is waiting for one of the generic pitchers in front of him to yield a spot somewhere on the staff".  Rest assured that the unidentified generic pitcher BP speaks of is probably that of Nick Blackburn.