Friday, March 04, 2011

Rounding out the rotation

On Wednesday, Ron Gardenhire stated that he fully intends on using Brian Duensing as a starter in 2011, presumably joining Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano in the rotation. By most accounts, Duensing had given ample reason based on his performance last season to keep him as a headliner rather than hide him away in the bullpen. Now, it is up to Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and Nick Blackburn to jockey for the final two positions.
While arguably capable of being a solid number two starter, Baker’s recent elbow issue has probably caused the coaches and front office to cringe a bit, hoping that he emerges from this setback without any further damage to his arm. News regarding Slowey has been surprisingly quiet this spring. Considering he has now had two consecutive seasons cut short with injuries, you would expect more updates on his developments. What we do know, however, is that in his one appearance this spring, he’s allowed three runs on a home run and issued two walks in two innings of work. Blackburn, meanwhile, had the same offseason surgery that Baker did but has (so far) appeared to return to the mound without the struggles, even going so far as saying his arm felt like new.
Of the three, I would speculate that Blackburn will to be the next suitor to receive Ron Gardenhire’s rotation rose.
Undeniably, Blackburn’s 2010 season was unpleasant – both for him and for us. After a terrific month of May, he unraveled faster than a Charlie Sheen interview as opponents took aim at what seemed to be his hanging fastballs. From June until mid-July, teams slugged .653 with 11 home runs over the course of 10 games. Nevertheless, after a brief stint in Rochester, he reemerged as a decent option for the playoffs (had they continued past Game 3). In his final nine games, Blackburn held opponents to a .356 slugging against and six home runs. With the exception of his debacle against Kansas City in which he allowed eight runs, he held opposing teams to three runs of fewer in those starts.
Just recently we learned that he went through all that while battling an elbow injury and, because of this, he admitted that he was forced to stop throwing his slider/cutter. Although this may seem minor, it likely played a significant role in Blackburn’s messy season.
Last May, right before his best run of the season, I used pitch f/x to present the case of his missing slider. Turns out, either opposing hitters either read the StarTribune’s TwinCentric content (highly unlikely) or they became well aware of his pitch selection shortly thereafter, decimating his sliderless repertoire post-May. According to Indians/Mariners slugger Russell Branyan, who had happened to run into Blackburn at a Garth Brooks concert (Author’s note: okay, Michael Buble concert), Branyan told Blackburn hitters picked up on that fact pretty quickly.
It’s no small wonder why his swing-and-miss rate plummeted last season upon the abandonment of his pitch that was best qualified to incite an empty swing:
Nick Blackburn’s Missing Bats:

Swinging Strike%
The difference between his post-May-prior-to-demotion-days and his late-season-recall-days in which he had some success is that he stopped throwing his two-seamer exclusively. He worked in his change-up more, giving the hitters something else to think about while at the plate. For the most part, this seemed to work.
Of course, despite the improvement after his demotion, as Jonathan Scippa pointed out at, righties were still crushing all over him. The conclusion is that without his slider/cutter, which he threw predominately to right-handed foes, Blackburn was more susceptible to big hits from same-sided opponents without that secondary option of the slider. Adding the slider back to his repertoire should help keep his same-sided opponents from laying into his offerings as much.
Keep in mind that given his abnormally high contact rate, coupled with his unusually low strikeout rate previous to the 2010 season, do not anticipate a sudden breakout season from the right-hander. It’s not as if adding the slider is going to transform him into Roy Halladay. What can be reasonable to think is that Blackburn can tone down that loud ERA – somewhere closer to the 4.00 number – while chewing threw 200 innings. If he can maintain an above-average ability to induce groundballs, shave a few walks off his totals and maybe even strikeout an extra batter or two per game, Blackburn is plenty capable of having a bounce-back season in 2011 and providing the Twins with a solid back-of-the-rotation starter.