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.