Friday, June 19, 2009

The Development of Nick Blackburn

Nick Blackburn’s nine inning gem yesterday afternoon was a thing of beauty.  I’ve said it before that I believe Blackburn’s attributes make him a prime candidate to not withstand the ebb and flow of defensive changes.  To be sure, by retiring just 10 percent of batters through a strikeout, Blackburn has placed the majority of his success in the hands of his surrounding fielders.  Rarely are pitchers successful for a long period of time without the ability to strikeout batters, eventually hitters find seams in the defense.  But let’s put that logic aside for a moment and just celebrate Blackburn for what he is, here and now.


Through his first 14 starts, Blackburn has managed to win six games and lose just two, making his .750% winning percentage in the top ten of AL starters, not to mention that his 3.09 ERA is within the top eight as well.  Since his May 10th start Blackburn has had a 1.85 ERA yet because of offensive shortcomings or bullpen implosions, the Twins have gone just 4-4 in those eight starts.  It is clear that Blackburn’s performance is contingent of avoiding hard contact.  His balls in play has witnessed a precipitous drop in the amount of line drives from last season (falling from 20.9% in ’08 to 16.0% in ’09) in addition to an ample drop in the amount of flyballs leaving the yard (10% in ’08 versus 5.9% in ’09).  Because of this, Blackburn’s slugging percentage against has also subsided (from .441 a year ago to .384 this year). 


Retiring hitters the first time through the order has also been are area of vast improvement for the Oklahoman.  In 132 match-ups in 2009, Blackburn has allowed no home runs while keeping the wolves at bay through a .207/.265/.314 batting line.  Compare that to last season when he allowed 10 home runs and a .303/.337/.458 batting line in 301 plate appearances. 


Clearly the area in which he has improved the most is getting outs by way of groundballs.  As his groundball percentage has increased (from 44.9% to 46.9%), Blackburn has seen more of them converted to outs and shaved points off of his batting average against on grounders (from .259 in ’08 to .205 in ‘09).  The Joe Crede acquisition might be most beneficial to this development.  In John Dewan’s Stat of the Week column, Dewan highlighted the top defensive fielders by looking at their “runs saved” figures that Crede’s 8 runs saved is tied for 5th and the third-highest among third basemen (Seattle’s Adrian Beltre and Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman have saved 9 apiece).  Include Crede in the infield and the Twins have a fairly stalwart defense.


Another aspect that has led to success is his variety of pitches that are thrown consistently for strikes.  During yesterday’s game, Pirate Eric Hinske told catcher Mike Redmond that the pitch he had hit was the first one of the dozen he had seen that was the least bit hittable.  Looking at Blackburn’s pitch assortment on, you can see the collection of pitches that Blackburn throws and the different breaks associated with each pitch.

Look at the motion of each pitch.  Blackburn has three distinctly pitches that bend into right-handed batters and away from lefties (four-seam, two-seam and changeup) and three others that run in on left-handed batters and away from righties (cutter, slider, curve). 

Here's another thing that makes his slider (1.18 wSL/C) and his curve (0.62 wCV/C) particularly effective is that Blackburn's pitch repertoire causes plenty of issues of recognition.  Where the slider is thrown at similar velocity to his fastballs, unlike the two-or-four seamer it has a definite break away from right-handed bats.  As opposing hitters are focusing on pitches that are running in on their hands, Blackburn drops a slider that runs away.  The curveball has a different effect as it is throw with less movement then "better" curves, yet with a 15-mph difference in velocity, making it difficult for hitters to keep their weight back. 
There are indicators in Blackburn's numbers that suggest that the second-half of the season will not go as smoothly as the first.  Consider that his 5.9 home run-to-flyballs ratio is well below the league average is a sign that it is possible that a few more will eventually sneak over the fence.  Likewise, his batting average on groundballs might also creep up now that Brendan Harris, a shortstop with less range than Nick Punto, is manning the position.  Even still, Blackburn has made it though roughly 50% of his season's starts without an severe damage and has improved considerable in a lot of areas.