Coming into the 2010 season, there was some high expectations set for Nick Blackburn. He had just signed a 4-year contract, and had been granted the #2 spot in the starting rotation. Against the Los Angeles Angels, Blackburn pitched a solid 6 2/3 innings with only 3 runs allowed as he earned the win. His three remaining starts didn’t go so well, but he seemingly turned a corner in May. His success was well-publicized, as he went 5-0 with a 2.65 ERA, causing one of the older ushers at Target Field to tell me that he felt Blackburn had a shot at not only making the All-Star Game, but starting it for the American League. However, his tidy 6-1 record was accompanied by a 2.55 strikeouts per 9 innings, suggesting that his success was driven by luck. Unsurprising to some, Blackburn then compiled a 10.05 ERA with a 3.77 K/9 over June and July, earning himself a trip to the minor leagues.
Blackburn spent nearly a full month in Triple-A Rochester as he worked to find his sinker. The Pitch F/X portion of the Texas Leaguers website shows how Blackburn’s “sinker” just wasn’t sinking.
According to Texas Leaguers, Blackburn’s 2-seam fastball was averaging about 5 1/2 inches of “rise” and about 8 inches of tailing action. I’ve drawn the white circle on the graph above to help illustrate the average movement of Blackburn’s 2-seamer, since many of these fastballs are hidden by change-ups. Unfortunately, if you play around with the website enough, you’d find out that many pitchers’ 4-seam fastballs have this type of movement. As we all heard, his sinker wasn’t sinking.
Once Blackburn returned, his luck changed. In 4 starts, Blackburn has now put up a 1.47 ERA with a 5.28 K/9 (still low, but far more normal for a groundball pitcher). According to Texas Leaguers, his 2-seam fastball now has a “rise” of only 3.81 inches.
Also, Blackburn has reduced the usage of his cutter (10.4% to 7.8%) and 4-seam fastball (8.9% to 3.1%) in favor of his change-up (12.1% to 21%), and has added over 1 MPH of velocity to the 2-seamer. All of these are likely contributing to Blackburn’s success this late in the season.
Finally, the biggest change can be noted in his groundball-to-flyball ratio. Before his trip to the minors, Blackburn’s GB/FB ratio was at 1.44:1, but is now at 2.22:1 in his 5 appearances since returning. Hopefully this success will continue, and will reinforce the confidence Bill Smith and the Twins showed in Blackburn when they signed him to his 4-year contract.