Friday, May 28, 2010

What is behind Nick Blackburn's improvement?

When April concluded, Nick Blackburn was struggling. Despite escaping the month with a respectable 1-1 record, the right-hander was splattered for a .653 slugging percentage thanks to 16 extra base hits including six home runs. In addition to the hard-hit balls, Blackburn was not the same precision-guided pitcher, often falling behind hitters and eventually walking them with a higher frequency then we have come to expect (eight walks in 23.2 innings). Surely this was not the same Nick Blackburn from a year ago but rather a doppelganger equipped with the same luxurious beard.

As the month concluded, Blackburn revealed that he was experiencing elbow discomfort, needed to tinker with his mechanics and then was sidelined for a family emergency for 10 days. When he returned, the tendinitis pain was gone and his mechanical kinks were ironed out. After his first start in the month, manager Ron Gardenhire told Sid Hartman that:

"We had the little issue where his mechanics were a little out of whack, and you know what, now he's fine. He's actually healthy and his mechanics are good again. We got his arm, got that little situation out of there, and he's throwing the ball really good. It's sinking again."
Whether it is the mechanical adjustment or just a healthy elbow, Blackburn has been a far better pitcher as of late. He is 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA in his five May starts, giving up just nine extra base hits and only five walks in 37.1 innings of work, making a resounding pitch for AL Pitcher of the Month.
Part of the reason behind this improvement appears to be his ability to avoid locating pitches in the mid-section of the strike zone:
As you can deduce from the graph above (which is a shot of his average pitch locations) of last night’s game, Blackburn worked the Yankee lineup consistently at or just off of the corners of the strike zone. Combined with changing speeds regularly, this kept a strong lineup off-balanced for the duration of the game.
Compare that graph to the following graph depicting Blackburn’s locations against the Chicago White Sox on April 11th:
Blackburn’s offerings were clipping far too much of the plate, entering some Danger Zone air space. Predictably, the White Sox launched three home runs off of him in that game.
The tweaks and clean bill of health have allowed Blackburn to move pitches down in the zone and away from the middle of the plate, resulting in fewer hard-hit line drives and less long fly balls:
Line Drive Pct
Because he is consistently near the strike zone, Blackburn will undoubtedly give up numerous hits. After all, his 94% contact rate as well as his 42% in-play rate is currently the highest in baseball. The trick for the Twins righty is to avoid the heavier contact that goes for extra bases. This means keeping his pitches on the edge of the zone as he did against the Yankees. If he can continue to do so, Blackburn should be able to provide the Twins with quality starts throughout the rest of the season.