The Continuing Evolution of Nick Blackburn

ST PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 15: : Pitcher Nick Blackburn #53 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the game at Tropicana Field on April 15, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

In early March, Ron Gardenhire raised eyebrows when he announced Nick Blackburn would be given a rotation spot, leaving Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey to fight for the final spot on the Twins opening day starting staff.

Baker, who was the Twins 2010 Opening Day starter, and Slowey were considered by many Twins fans to be far superior pitchers to Blackburn. Fans had reason to be skeptical of Blackburn: last season, Nick sported the second highest ERA in baseball among starters with at least 160 innings pitched.

In truth, Blackburn's 2010 was a tale of two seasons. From the beginning of the season through July, Blackburn was atrocious: 104 innings, a 6.66 ERA, terrible peripherals, and a 943 OPS against. Following a well-deserved demotion, Nick came back on August 23rd and finished the season strong: in 8 starts (and one relief appearance), he posted a 3.16 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a 622 OPS.

We know Blackburn was facing significant health issues in 2010, and is reportedly feeling better than ever after off-season elbow surgery. Nick entered the 2011 season looking to use his improved health to build off his strong finish to 2010, and, so far, the results have been pretty encouraging.

Later today, Blackburn will make his fourth start of the season. Here's a breakdown of his first three appearances:

IP

H

R

ER

K

BB

HR

5.2

6

2

1

2

1

1

6

6

1

0

2

3

0

6

10

5

5

6

0

1

As you'll recall, the five earned runs Blackburn took in his last start came after five strong, shutout innings. He gave up three runs on five hits in the 6th, and then a single and homer when Gardenhire sent him out in the seventh. While he certainly can't be excused for the runs he allowed, his line could have looked a lot better with a little better luck or a little quicker hook.

Even with those five earned in his last start, Blackburn enters tonight's game with a 3.06 ERA, a 5.09 K/9 rate (well above his career high), and a FIP (4.08) and xFIP (3.92) far better than his career rates.

In fact, in many ways, in looks like Blackburn has picked up right where he left off last season:

ERA

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

April-Jul 2010

6.66

3.03

2.34

1.64

Aug-Sep 2010

3.16

5.21

2.05

0.95

2011

3.06

5.09

2.04

1.02

Blackburn was fooling no one in the first half of 2010, and hitters were depositing his mistakes into the bleachers at an alarming rate. Since being recalled last August, however, Nick is actually striking hitters out more frequently than he ever has in his career, and his homerun rate has dropped back to his 2008 and 2009 levels.

So how has Blackburn turned his career around from his early season struggles in 2010? Well, while I'm not enough of an expert to claim causation, Blackburn's improvement has seemed to correlate to a fairly significant change in his pitch selection.

It was well-documented that Blackburn's elbow troubles last season forced him to abandon his slider, a pitch he threw fairly frequently in 2008 and 2009. Now look at the chart below: in the first half of 2010, he made up for his inability to throw his slider by throwing far more two-seam fastballs/sinkers than he had ever thrown before.

FB*

CH

CU

SL

2008

53.20%

9.50%

12.50%

37.30%

2009

63.70%

10.30%

8.60%

17.30%

Apr-Jul 2010

77.80%

12.10%

9.90%

0.10%

Aug-Sep 2010

69.60%

16.50%

13.20%

0.70%

2011

61.60%

23.40%

14.70%

0.40%

The 6.66 ERA he posted during that time suggests that wasn't a viable strategy

After coming back from his demotion, however, Blackburn seemed to have abandoned that approach, choosing instead to replace his lost slider with a higher percentage of changeups and curveballs, a pattern that has held true (and even grown) so far in 2011.

Again, while I won't pretend to be able to prove causation, throwing a career-high rate of change-ups and curveballs has coincided with the highest strikeout rates of Blackburn's career.

Tonight we'll have an opportunity to watch the continuing evolution of Nick Blackburn. Nine short months ago, Blackburn looked destined for the scrapheap, and his four-year, $14 million contract extension looked terribly foolish. While there is little reason to think Nick will ever be better than what we saw in 2008 and 2009, simply returning to that level would be a huge relief for the front office signing his checks, and a huge boost for a pitching staff filled with several question marks

*Note: the "FB" category encompasses all fastballs registered by PitchFX - four-seamers, two-seamers, and cutters.

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