Monday, July 19, 2010

Changing speeds critical for Blackburn

Back on June 18th, Nick Blackburn followed a decent seven-inning 3-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves with an absolute throttling by a potent Philadelphia Phillies lineup – one that chased him out of the game in the middle of the second inning. Before most fans had found their seats, Blackburn had been tagged for eight earned runs on six hits including two rocket home runs from Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. After the game, the diagnosis from the Twins pitching coach was that Blackburn failed to adequately change speeds.

As you can see from his pitch speed chart below from that outing, it wasn’t until his 21st pitch of the evening that Blackburn spun his first curveball over. By that time, it was already 3-0 Phillies.

Blackburn vs Phillies - June 18th, 2010

Rick Anderson’s resolution was fairly simplistic. Mixing in different pitches would keep Blackburn from developing a familiar pattern. Even at Anderson’s behest and three out of four starts in which Blackburn failed to enter the fifth inning, he still didn’t incorporate the desired changes.

This kicked off a string of consecutive starts in which the right-hander went 1-3 with a snowman-shaped 8.57 ERA while allowing another seven home runs in 21 innings of work. The unifying link between his fiasco in Philadelphia and the ensuing losses was the inability to vary his velocity. With the exception of his victory over the Tigers on June 29th, Blackburn clung to his sinker with a kung fu death-grip.

In his last start prior to the All-Star Break on July 10th, Blackburn tangled with the Tigers at Comerica. Like his start against Detroit at Target Field the prior week, he opened the game with a decent mix of pitches and variations in velocity. Only, instead of maintaining this pace, after being roughed up for three runs however, this game plan was discarded in favor of the fastball, throwing it 43 out of his last 47 pitches. Following four more runs, including a three-run jack by Johnny Damon, Blackburn was chased from the game in the fifth inning without ever recording an out.

Blackburn at Tigers - July 10th, 2010

In this particular start, it appeared that Blackburn attempted to adhere to the game plan of changing speeds but simply got sloppy once the game started to slip away further exacerbating the situation.

With his spot in the rotation in severe jeopardy and the frustration escalating with every start, manager Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson met with Blackburn regarding his struggles. Before Sunday’s game against the White Sox, there was yet another summit among the three. The message expounded on the righty, as conveyed by Bert Blyleven during Sunday’s broadcast, was the value of changing speeds.

Why is this so important?

The idea is simple. If you miss your spots as Blackburn has done so routinely recently, the damage may be minimized by messing with the hitters’ timing. If you are missing spots and throwing at the same speed constantly, professional hitters will hammer those pitches. While location remains supremely important, if there is a deviation in velocity or break, this may incite hitters to commit too early to a pitch they would otherwise drive, turning it over on the ground. When Blackburn was tearing through opponents in May, he rarely showed the same reliance on his fastball in succession. This was a chief reason behind his ability to achieve success with a substandard amount of strikeouts.
Reviewing the pitch speed chart from Sunday’s come-from-behind victory over the White Sox, we see that Blackburn made sufficient strides in improving his deception:

Blackburn vs White Sox - July 18th, 2010

Throughout the first four innings, Blackburn reconnected with what made him successful in May: alternating 92-mph fastballs with 79-mph changeups and back again. Only once did he throw three fastballs in a row in that time and, with the exception of Alexi Ramirez’s groundball double down the third base line, Blackburn did not allow any extra base hits or particularly hard hit balls.

Nevertheless, in the fifth inning, Blackburn once again reverted to his fastball. Instead of mixing in his curve and changeup, he fed the White Sox lineup fastballs on 13 of the 17 pitches – at one point tossing 12 straight to Ramon Castro, Gordon Beckham and Juan Pierre. After that, the White Sox jumped on top of his stuff and stamped his ticket to an early shower.

Again, when he has embraced variety, Blackburn has performed very well (as evident by his month of May and his first four innings on Sunday). On the other hand, when he is lulled into relying on his fastball, he gets whipped. A starting pitcher cannot have sustained success by continuously throwing one pitch at one speed. Blackburn has been given nine starts to recognize that fact in addition to a tutorial from his pitching coach back in early June. Naturally this development has exhausted both the coaching staff and the front office. Even with the signs of progress in his most recent outing, with Brian Duensing waiting in the wings and the trade deadline approaching, Blackburn’s days in the rotation are most likely numbered.

If or when he does get another start, here’s one tip: change speeds.