Friday, September 17, 2010

Nick Blackburn has it figured out.

While the list of second-half heroes for the Twins is expansive and growing with each series, another late addition to that catalog deserves recognition.
Nick Blackburn started the year signing a four-year extension and demonstrated his appreciation by getting lit up in the season’s first month. A reassuring May was followed by an equally disappointing June and by July, the financially-secure Blackburn was suddenly a candidate for a demotion.
Reports emerged that Blackburn was not following his pitching coach’s instructions and not changing speeds adequately. As you can see from the velocity chart below, Blackburn’s velocity range was muted in comparison to his two previous seasons in a Twins uniform:

Hitters jumped all over his stuff in July and were waxing the ball all over the field. Without his groundballs abilities, Blackburn was like a hiker without a compass – he was lost. In all, the right-hander tossed 104 innings, allowing 19 home runs coupled with a pitiful 35-to-27 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
After being shuttled to Rochester in late July with explicit instructions to “figure it out”, Blackburn has shown that he has definite solved his problems. Since his return, Blackburn has worked 31.2 innings, allowed just six earned runs (1.71 ERA) and has posted a 20-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His results since his recall have been that much more impressive considering the injuries to Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey could have placed the team in peril during the playoff push.
What had made this all possible is that the groundball pitcher rediscovered how to incite groundballs again: 

The catalyst behind this scorched earth increase is basic – Blackburn is showing hitters a variety of speeds rather than inundate them with the fastball.
Nick Blackburn’s repertoire:
Because he is opting to throw more off-speed pitches, opponents are no longer squaring up on his two-seam fastball. Instead, they often find themselves out-front on a swing and wind up beating the ball into the ground rather than elevating the pitch as they did when Blackburn was extremely transparent in the first half of the season.  
In addition to the groundballs, this approach has also led to a greater influx of swinging strikes. In the first half, Blackburn’s failure to get any hitters to miss his pitches was puzzling. While he was never a swing-and-miss type pitcher, in the past Blackburn managed to keep his swinging strike rate near the league average (10% career rate heading into 2010). By the end of July, Blackburn had inspired only 3% of total swings to miss, well below the 15% norm. Since the return, the righty has prompted 8% swinging strikes – leading to a respectable 5.8 K/9 ratio in that time.
While the Twins look to reduce that Magic Number, Blackburn will take the rubber again tonight against Oakland - a team that had throttled him for five runs on 10 hits in 2.2 innings in June. Clearly, this is not the same Blackburn that faced the A’s at the beginning of the summer and because of his swift turnaround, Blackburn has undoubtedly earned the consideration for a postseason starter.