A Change of Luck

Once upon a time, the Minnesota Twins were notorious for making free agent signings that had varying levels of risk, but little chance of a significant reward. Livan Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson are often names that come to mind. However, this past offseason was much different. Carl Pavano accepted arbitration, Orlando Hudson came over from the Dodgers, and Jim Thome signed an insanely cheap $1.5 million contract for this season. So far, these signings have paid off for the Twins.

Instead, the bad contracts on the 2010 team came from players that had been with the Twins for a couple years. The Twins ended up buying out the arbitration years for Brendan Harris and Nick Blackburn, presumably for some cost-certainty before they handed out a contract extension to Joe Mauer. Unfortunately, both players have been terrible this year. While Harris found himself accepting a demotion to Triple-A Rochester just so he could keep the money in his contract, getting rid of Blackburn will be much tougher for the Twins.

After posting nearly identical stats all across the board for the past two years, including a near 4.00 ERA and 33 starts in 2008 and 2009, Blackburn seemed to be a cornerstone for the rotation. Gardy displayed his confidence in Blackburn by naming him the #2 starter in the rotation. Unfortunately, Blackburn has rewarded that confidence with a 6.00 ERA and the worst strikeout per 9 inning rate in the majors.

Let’s play a little game of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

The Good

Career low line drive percentage (17.4%), career high ground ball percentage (47.9%), career high GB/FB rate (1.38)

The Bad

Career worst BB/9 rate (2.52, though it’s still very above average), and a FIP of 5.46

The Ugly

Career worst K/9 rate (3.19, worst in the majors, though it was in the mid-2s earlier this season; also, MLB average for K/9 is currently 7.04), a WHIP of 1.65, HR/9 of 1.45, and that 6.00 ERA

I easily could have said more, but this gives you a good idea that Blackburn simply has been very bad this year. Thanks to these struggles, he’s only averaging 5.8 IP per start, which often puts added pressure on the bullpen. Here’s a simply recipe as to why he’s been struggling so much this year (note: This is not necessarily the entire reason why he’s been so bad this year).

1. Career worst 3.19 K/9 means many hitters are putting the ball in play.

2. As if a large number of balls in play wasn’t bad enough, a .328 batting average on balls in play means that many of these batters are getting hits, which leads to Blackburn’s .326 opponent’s batting average and 1.65 WHIP.

3. Just for good measure, Blackburn has a high 1.45 HR/9 rate. Not only are plenty of batters getting hits, but they’re getting plenty of home runs. Of Blackburn’s 15 home runs allowed, 7 are solo homers, 6 are 2-run homers, and 2 are 3-run homers. Those multi-run homers are a fantastic way to boost your ERA.

Looking at FanGraphs, Blackburn is credited with throwing a 2-seam fastball, change-up, cutter, curveball, and an occasional 4-seam fastball. I could bore you to death with reciting the change in movement on all of Blackburn’s pitches, but I’d rather just cut to the chase and show you some pictures. Here, I will compare Blackburn’s month of May, which we all know he pitched very well, with his June and July, which haven’t been so great.

If the top picture looks familiar, it’s because it’s very similar to the Pitch Virtualization (Top) picture from May 27th that Parker Hageman used it in his post to describe how well Blackburn was pitching in May. Clearly, Blackburn was consistently pitching towards the outer thirds of the plate, while avoiding the middle third. From the Pitch Movement graph, there are distinct clusters for each of Blackburn’s pitches. Here are his pitch usage and velocity for his repetoire in May.

2-seam fastball: 89.6 MPH, 63.6%

Change-up: 82.5 MPH, 12.2%

Cutter: 87.5 MPH, 9.6%

Curveball: 78.3 MPH, 8.0%

4-seam fastball: 90.4 MPH, 6.7%

Now, here’s the graphs, velocity, and pitch selection for every one of Blackburn’s starts after May.

Wow, that Pitch Virtualization (Top) looks rather erratic. However, comparing May and June/July, Blackburn’s 2-seam fastball and change-up are basically in the same part of the plate, as is his occasional 4-seam fastball. However, Blackburn’s cutter has now moved from over the plate to just off the corner, and his curveball has migrated to directly over the plate.

2-seam fastball: 90.8 MPH, 61.4%

Change-up: 84.2 MPH, 11.3%

Cutter: 88.8 MPH, 11.4%

Curveball: 79.1 MPH, 9.7%

4-seam fastball: 91.1 MPH, 6.0%

In terms of pitch usage, Blackburn has been throwing more cutters and curveballs, while decreasing his number of 2-seam fastballs and change-ups. Another interesting pattern is that the velocity on all of his pitches have increased. In May, Blackburn was coming back from some elbow discomfort. Perhaps that elbow soreness contributed to the lower velocities. If you’ve watched any of Blackburn’s starts on FSNorth without mute, you’ve heard Bert Blyleven talk about when a sinkerball pitcher is “too strong,” his sinker tends to flatten out, which makes it easier to hit hard. Looking at the average movement of his 2-seam fastballs from May and June/July, it seems that Blackburn has not had much change in movement with the increase in velocity.

So then, what is it? Well, despite the change in velocity, I don’t feel that the change in pitch movement from May to June/July is significant. Therefore, my unexciting conclusion is that Blackburn simply was pitching over his head in May, and now he’s regressed to a level that’s simply atrocious. I don’t think he’s as bad as his 6.00 ERA, but when he can’t get hitters to swing and miss at his pitches, it’s going to be hard to fool hitters for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, I don’t have any real solutions for him (it’s not like he would hear my suggestions anyway), other than sending him down to the minor leagues. We’re barely halfway through the season, so he still has time to improve, but if the Twins have to fend off both the Tigers and White Sox for the AL Central, there probably isn’t much more time for Blackburn to sort himself out.

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