Between the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Nick Blackburn showed an amazing level of consistency. Both years, he posted a nearly identical ERA, but the similarities extended beyond that.
This consistency led the Twins and Blackburn to agree to a 4-year, $14 million contract just prior to the 2010 season. However, Blackburn has done little to reward the Twins for this commitment, as he posted a 5.42 ERA in 2010 and a 4.49 ERA in 2011. That 2011 ERA actually doesn’t look that bad, but the average ERA last season was 3.94, the lowest it’s been since 1992.
Blackburn, a pitcher that relies predominantly on a 2-seam fastball, has seen his groundball rate trend in the right direction since his first full season in 2008. It has risen every single season, from 44.9% in ’08 to 53.5% this past season. However, success has not followed this trend.
In 2010, the easy culprit would be Blackburn’s career-low strikeout rate of 3.80. Sinkerball pitchers already tend to strike out hitters at a below-average rate, but this level was just absurd. It led to more pitches being put into play, and despite having a roughly average BABIP, those extra pitches hit into play meant more hits. Yet perhaps a bigger issue for Blackburn was his issue with the long ball. In 2010, his HR/9 skyrocketed to 1.40, after it had been at 1.08 for the prior two seasons combined.
Last year, Blackburn actually had a career-best strikeout rate, and he got the home runs back under control. However, his new issue had to do with control. In 2008-2009, Blackburn was doing an excellent job with following the Twins philosophy of not allowing any walks, but that changed last season. He had a career-worst 3.28 BB/9, which was actually slightly below average last season. Throw in hitters getting to put the ball into play with regularity, and it’s not hard to see why he had a 1.60 WHIP. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched last year, Blackburn’s WHIP ranked fourth-worst, only ahead of Tyler Chatwood, John Lackey, and Danny Duffy. Throw in the fact that WHIP vs. ERA has a correlation of .8225 (read: strong correlation), and it’s easy to see that his WHIP contributed significantly to his below-average ERA.
In my eyes, it’s not rocket science with what Blackburn has to do to return to the pitcher we all saw in ’08 and ’09. It appears as though the home runs he allowed in 2010 were just a blip on the radar, so I’m not concerned about that. Missing more bats is an obvious choice, but unless Blackburn chooses to reinvent his pitching repertoire, I don’t see that improving much either. Instead, I think Blackburn just needs to cut down on his walks. I showed before how beneficial limiting walks are to a pitcher, and I feel that if he can get his walk rate down to Kevin Slowey-like levels, we will see more of the pitcher that convinced the Twins that he was worthy of a $14 million multi-year contract.