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Is Nick Blackburn Minnesota's Ace?

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After a couple of big starts, right now he could be.

When you talk about the best Twins pitchers, in Twins Territory or outside of it, you use the names of Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Scott Baker.  But for the second year in a row, Nick Blackburn is exceeding expectations.  He doesn't strike out the most guys, he doesn't have knee-bending breaking balls and his fastball doesn't smoke, but he's getting results.

Researching a few trends between Minnesota's five starters, in order to see if there was an outstanding reason for Blackburn's successes, I ran into a few interesting bits.

Pitch Selection

  • Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins throw their fastballs, which average less than 90 mph, two out of every three pitches.
  • Blackburn, Baker and Liriano deliver fastballs, which average over 90 mph, within an interestingly small percentage of each other:  59.3 - 59.8% of the time.

That 7- 8% difference in selecting the fastball doesn't seem like a large margin, but in reality it's quite significant.  I'm not sure what conclusions we can draw from the over/under 90 mph barrier, if any, other than it's an intriguing coincidence.

What is interesting is that Blackburn also throws a bit of a sinking fastball, roughly 24% of the time.  For a guy who doesn't throw his off-speed pitch very often, being able to locate and work the sinking fastball is key.  If both pitches look the same coming out of Nick's hand, with one coming in faster and the other falling off the table, it can be a formidable combination when used with two or three other distinctive pitches.

Batted Balls

  • Correlating line-drive percentages (17.5%) against BABIP (.301), Blackburn is falling pretty much where you'd expect him to.  Perkins has been unlucky, seeing more balls in play turning into hits than you'd expect off his LD% while Baker has been the lucky one.
  • Blackburn is the only starter with a GB/FB ratio over 1.00, at 1.32.  Those should account for some easier outs.
  • Blackburn allows by far the fewest fly balls, and on top of that, his home run-to-fly ball rates are also the lowest in the rotation.  Only Baker's ratio is over league average, and it is by a margin.

According to batted ball types, it looks like Nick is making it easier on his defense to convert those balls in play into outs.  When you're not letting the ball leave the park, you're doing something right.

The Three True Outcomes

  • Blackburn actually has the lowest strikeout rate in the rotation (4.55 K/9), and he and Perkins strike out less than five men per nine innings.
  • Nick's walk rates are well within the acceptable range (2.7 BB/9), but only Liriano has a worse track record so far this year.
  • He's allowing just 0.57 HR/9 this season, with every other starter over one; Baker's ratio is 2.3/9.

Even though he's fourth in the rotation in walk rates, Blackburn still gets passing grades on two of the Three True Outcomes.  Which is exactly what a non-strikeout pitcher needs in order to be effective.

Right now, the single biggest factor in Nick's success has been his ability to keep the ball in the yard.  He's well under his career averages, the only true difference in his numbers in his brief major league career.  He's been exactly who we've needed him to be, and his performance means that much more because the two guys you want to lean on at the front of the rotation aren't delivering.

Realistically, it's fair to assume at some point one or two things will start to catch up with Nick.  But until then, viva la Blackburn!  He's our ace, and right now he's setting the benchmark for everyone else.