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  • Can Nick Blackburn be fixed?

    For the 9-to-5ers in Twins Territory, those who did not attend the game should consider themselves lucky they stayed in the office rather than witness Nick Blackburn’s last start on Wednesday afternoon.

    For the second consecutive start, Blackburn was punished across the field, allowing another pair of home runs to Chicago’s Adam Dunn and Alex Rios. The one-time groundball-getter has failed to induce the batted ball types that earned him that label. In those two starts, he managed to get 12 grounders to 26 fly balls – hardly the worm-burning ratio.

    At a point when the Twins are in desperate need of a starter to just throw consistent innings Blackburn, the guy they paid millions to supply just that, has been unable to fulfill their needs. Is there any hope of Blackburn turning things around or is he simply a casualty waiting to happen?

    In March 2010, the Twins made the decision to sign Blackburn to a four-year deal -- in spite of coming off a season in which he led the league in hits allowed (240) -- effectively buying out his arbitration years and a year of free agency for $14 million.

    Not long after that Rob Antony, the team’s assistant general manager, explained the logic behind locking in Blackburn saying that the organization believed he was capable of providing the team with more than his nearly 400 innings (399.0 to be exact), 22-22 record and 4.04 ERA which he had already put up in 2008 and 2009.

    “You start putting down the numbers and all the comps that he has and you base it off of if he just does what he has done,” Antony said. “You don’t project that he is getting better – although we believe there is more in there. Instead of being an 11-11 guy, we believe he could easily be a 15-9 guy.”

    Had he simply sustained his previous production, Blackburn would have been a huge bargain for the Twins. In his first two seasons, Fangraphs.com’s value metric said that he was worth $24.8 million mostly based on working 200 innings. Of course, he would not be able to maintain that level of output. Injuries and general ineffectiveness has made it look like he hornswoggled the team out of millions. Over the past three seasons, Fangraphs.com’s value metric has said he has been only worth $2.4 million while the Twins have paid him $8.25 million in actual money.

    Blackburn has always been a pitcher who seems to work in a delicately balanced universe. As a high contact groundballer with the propensity to give up long home runs, he requires sterling defense behind him and laser-sharp command to guide him through his starts. If one of those items falls out of equilibrium, the levee breaks.

    To his credit, Blackburn seems very cognizant of his abilities and his reliance on his mechanics to help the movement in his sinker.

    This spring, Blackburn headed into camp talking about changes he had made to him mechanics and approach. The first was shifting to the middle of the pitching rubber away from the first base side he had lived at for most of his career. This, he said, would give added deception. The second change was getting to a more “over-the-top” release point to alleviate stress on his arm. In considering his season thus far, clearly neither addition has been the answer.

    While pitchers are always adapting, Blackburn’s latest mechanics seem further and further away from his successful 2009 season which landed him his large payday.

    Take a look at his 2009 version compared to his current one:






    If you are looking for it, you will notice several differences but the most critical difference is in his leg stride. Notice in his 2009 model that he gets his front leg up higher and instead of bringing it back down immediately, he stretches it further out towards home. There is a brief hesitation as he gets to the peak of his leg lift before bringing his leg forward. As that is happening, his weight stays back extremely well. Meanwhile, his current mechanics involve bringing the front leg down and then drifting it forward rather than stretching it as he did in 2009.

    Compare the two motions at the point in which he is beginning to move his front leg forward. Here you can see how much more he elevations his front leg in 2009 and how the 2012 version is taking more of a swinging path towards home.






    Pitch F/X data details a significantly different story in the path of his sinker (classified as a two-seamer) from 2009 and 2012.

    In 2009, while lining up on the first base side of the rubber, Blackburn’s sinker most often was thrown on the black of the plate (in on righties, away from lefties). This, more or less, is an ideal spot for that pitch. Notice in the overhead below that the pitch has some pitcher’s glove side run to it as well. This season, with the relocation to the middle of the slab, the sinker is thrown smack dab in the center of the plate and, unlike the 2009 version, does not have much run if any.




    From the strike zone view, you will see how the 2009 sinker ran in on the hands of right-handed hitters and away from the left-handed hitters’ swings. This season a solid majority of his offerings have been within the zone, giving hitters something they can square up on:




    In short, in 2009 he stayed back well and was able to get outstanding movement and location. In 2012, he is rushing a bit towards home which creates a timing issue and has less movement on the sinker.

    As has been discussed at length at Twins Daily’s forum, Blackburn is currently a sunk cost to the Twins. He now has thrown several stinkers in a row without any signs of improving. The general attitude among the community appears to be to cut him loose and give those innings to another pitcher. Unfortunately, the team is on the hook again for $5.5 million next year and, with the current state of the rotation, the Twins could certainly use the 2009 version of Blackburn again.

    There are probably some very good reasons behind Blackburn’s mechanical changes since 2009. However, given his struggles, I would submit that it cannot hurt to attempt to return to the motion he was using back when the front office invested $14 million in him and his power sinker.
    This article was originally published in blog: Can Nick Blackburn be fix? started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 30 Comments
    1. YourHouseIsMyHouse's Avatar
      YourHouseIsMyHouse -
      I try to locate the differences before reading on with these to see how smart I am. It's not a bad cognitive activity as usually they are fairly subtle (except in this case). The leg kick and stride length were all I could pick up from the delivery. It's amazing how much a small change can make on a player's effectiveness. I'd have to imagine that these changes work both ways though. There was a lot of late break on the 09 sinker and it completely fooled the batter in the gif. Now that sinker might as well be a hanging changeup that even the worst of ballplayers can crush.
    1. glunn's Avatar
      glunn -
      Another very impressive analysis by Parker with visual proof. Maybe getting back to his 2009 form could make a big difference for Blackburn, and I agree with Parker's conclusion that trying this could not hurt.
    1. Pat McEnroe's Avatar
      Pat McEnroe -
      Great article. Parker how much do you think Blackburn's knee problems have led to this change in mechanics? I've had a couple knee surgeries myself and can imagine it being a huge issue trying to really balance and drive off my back leg.
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      The problem I have with this train of thought is that there is an engrained assumption that Blackburn was a "good" pitcher. And this is based on IP, which is not a performance metric, but a manager's choice metric.

      In 2009, Blackburn had a worse than average 1.366 WHIP and a worse than average 4.3 K/9. He was worse than the average pitcher in his best season. Because the Twins unwisely offered him a contract extension based on "whatever they saw" or "their gut", instead of the numbers, does not make him "good", or even average. So "fixing him" would equate to bringing up the equivalent of Cole DeVries or Sam Deduno to pitch. The latter is an easier fix.
    1. Mr. Ed's Avatar
      Mr. Ed -
      Quote Originally Posted by thrylos98 View Post
      The problem I have with this train of thought is that there is an engrained assumption that Blackburn was a "good" pitcher.
      There is too much put into a couple of end/season performances which were very good, which is now a few years ago.

      The guy is now a meatball pitcher. Was a mistake giving him a big extension early(Think Joe Mays). He needs to fake an injury and go back to ext ST where coaches can work mechanics to make him mediocre at best.
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by thrylos98 View Post
      The problem I have with this train of thought is that there is an engrained assumption that Blackburn was a "good" pitcher. And this is based on IP, which is not a performance metric, but a manager's choice metric.

      In 2009, Blackburn had a worse than average 1.366 WHIP and a worse than average 4.3 K/9. He was worse than the average pitcher in his best season. Because the Twins unwisely offered him a contract extension based on "whatever they saw" or "their gut", instead of the numbers, does not make him "good", or even average. So "fixing him" would equate to bringing up the equivalent of Cole DeVries or Sam Deduno to pitch. The latter is an easier fix.
      Which is fine if you make the gigantic leap in the assumption that even "average" starters are easy to find and cheap to sign.

      Blackburn is a "good" pitcher when his sinker is working. Is he a #2 on a playoff team? No, but to get to the playoffs, you need more than two starters. As a #4, he's quite good. As a #3, he's middling at best.

      He's the type of pitcher you want on your contending team* as a complementary player, like a Michael Cuddyer or Orlando Hudson. A little up and down from season to season but overall, a nice player to have on the team. When he's fronting your lineup or rotation, it's a problem.

      *assuming his sinker is actually sinking
    1. twinsfan214's Avatar
      twinsfan214 -
      Just wondering, how much of this same type of thing was said about Carlos Silva?
    1. Brock Beauchamp's Avatar
      Brock Beauchamp -
      Quote Originally Posted by twinsfan214 View Post
      Just wondering, how much of this same type of thing was said about Carlos Silva?
      A lot. Same goes for Chien Ming Wang. Guys who live by putting the ball on the ground and not missing bats walk a baseball tightrope. It's not impossible to have sustained success pitching that way but it's very difficult. If anything in their mechanics change and their sinker stops sinking, they go from "acceptable" to "batting practice" in the flash of an eye.

      It doesn't mean that Blackburn can't return to being a good pitcher but it makes it a bit of a longshot.
    1. fetch's Avatar
      fetch -
      interestingly enough, Blackburn's xFIP got better the two years after he signed his extension, so maybe he was the victim of bad luck a bit in those two years. Still never should have signed him to that deal though.
    1. adjacent's Avatar
      adjacent -
      Quote Originally Posted by thrylos98 View Post
      The problem I have with this train of thought is that there is an engrained assumption that Blackburn was a "good" pitcher. And this is based on IP, which is not a performance metric, but a manager's choice metric.

      In 2009, Blackburn had a worse than average 1.366 WHIP and a worse than average 4.3 K/9. He was worse than the average pitcher in his best season. Because the Twins unwisely offered him a contract extension based on "whatever they saw" or "their gut", instead of the numbers, does not make him "good", or even average. So "fixing him" would equate to bringing up the equivalent of Cole DeVries or Sam Deduno to pitch. The latter is an easier fix.
      I think De Vries in MLB is a disaster waiting to happen, and Deduno, who knows. And that is the big problem, I agree that Blackburn is bad, but there are no really viable replacements available, at least within the organization. Now, if your line of thinking is to use a lost season to take a fly on all these guys, well, that could be.
    1. Boom Boom's Avatar
      Boom Boom -
      Quote Originally Posted by fetch View Post
      interestingly enough, Blackburn's xFIP got better the two years after he signed his extension, so maybe he was the victim of bad luck a bit in those two years. Still never should have signed him to that deal though.
      Conversely, Blackburn significantly outperformed his xFIP the two years previous, which would indicate he was the beneficiary of good luck before signing the extension.
    1. boney's Avatar
      boney -
      Can Nick Blackburn be fixed? Got a rubberband?
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      Quote Originally Posted by adjacent View Post
      I think De Vries in MLB is a disaster waiting to happen, and Deduno, who knows. And that is the big problem, I agree that Blackburn is bad, but there are no really viable replacements available, at least within the organization. Now, if your line of thinking is to use a lost season to take a fly on all these guys, well, that could be.
      I think that the Twins by this point should know that Blackburn is not part of the future at least in the rotation. Putting them in the pen they might see whether he might be part of the future there, like Perkins.
      They do not know the same about DeVries of Deduno. They should find out whether they can help the rotation in 2013.
      This season is done. They gotta do some tryouts
    1. jimbo92107's Avatar
      jimbo92107 -
      Assuming the two examples are supposed to be the same pitch, Blackburn's head falls much farther to the left in the first clip, causing his torso to pirouette away from the plate, imparting much more inside-out spin than in the second clip. I see the difference in the front leg, but he could still impart inside-out spin with that stride. Why he chose not to, I don't know. Again, we're assuming he was trying to throw the same pitch in both clips. Maybe that assumption is wrong. Blackburn does walk a tightrope of subtle variations in his delivery. Could be that he's constantly tinkering with his release point, wrist flip and such, and sometimes that gets him in trouble. In the second clip, the ball came out of his hand with nothing on it. Obviously the first clip was a much better pitch. Does it come down to mechanics, pitch selection or simply flawed precision? The balls going 400 feet off Blackburn have been right down the middle. That's a bad spot no matter what spin you put on the ball.
    1. greengoblinrulz's Avatar
      greengoblinrulz -
      organization/fans read FAR too much into his pitching well in game 163 vs CHI. They still talk about it when giving his case that he can recover.
      He was durable the first 2 yrs & thats it. Durability is defiantely a very good thing, but he still didnt pitch that well in the post steroid era.
      His contract could go down as one of the worst moves Billy Smith made as it ties up payroll more than Mauer IMO.
      There is no arguement for keeping him in the majors. He is supposedly out of options (is it he's a 6 yr guy??), so to option him to ROC, we may need to take him off 40 man roster(go thru waivers). Do It.
      The 8.5m of him/Nishi is killer but with Nishi they showed that money doesnt dictate you get to play in majors if you cannot perform.
    1. Fire Dan Gladden's Avatar
      Fire Dan Gladden -
      I love all the back seat pitching coaches...
    1. chuchadoro's Avatar
      chuchadoro -
      Can Nick Blackburn be fixed?

      There has to be a more humane way to eliminate the possibility of Blackburn offspring stinking up future Twins pitching staffs.
    1. Badsmerf's Avatar
      Badsmerf -
      Blackburn doesn't need to be fixed! Didn't any of you watch game 163?
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      Quote Originally Posted by Boom Boom View Post
      Conversely, Blackburn significantly outperformed his xFIP the two years previous, which would indicate he was the beneficiary of good luck before signing the extension.
      Or, it could indicate xFIP really doesn't tell you much of anything useful.
    1. FrodaddyG's Avatar
      FrodaddyG -
      Quote Originally Posted by USAFChief View Post
      Or, it could indicate xFIP really doesn't tell you much of anything useful.
      Yep, xFIP is useless, seeing as Blackburn outperformed it regularly, proving it was not a fluke, and his terrible peripherals never eventually caught up to him.
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