Thursday, March 7, 2013

What made Nick Blackburn successful?

$5.5 million.

That's how much Nick Blackburn will be paid by the Minnesota Twins in 2013. Oh yeah, he isn't on the 40-man roster so there is a chance that he won't even throw a pitch for the Twins this year. As a Twins fan, this is disappointing and eye-opening at the same time but it is a sunk cost at this point.

Let's look back at how the Twins got into this mess with Blackburn in the first place. The front office for the Twins seemed to be trying to lock-up some of their homegrown players to contracts. Scott Baker got a four-year deal in 2009 and one year later the Twins signed Blackburn for a similar deal. Denard Span got an extension around the same time as Blackburn.

When the Twins signed Blackburn, he had come off of two seasons where he had been a fixture in the Twins rotation. From 2008-2009, he posted a 4.04 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP over almost 400 innings. There had been positive signs from Blackburn but it was a surprise to see the Twins signing him to a multi-year contract.

Blackburn had shown glimpses of being serviceable as a big league pitcher so what were some of the things that made him successful?

The pitcher mold Blackburn fits into is a sinker ball pitcher. If his sinker ball isn't working, there are going to be some problems on the field. He isn't going to strike out many batters so he has to find other ways to get players out.

Some other issues can arise from the defense behind him. In his two best seasons ('08-'09), Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, and Orlando Cabrera played the most in the middle infield. The center fielder was usually Carlos Gomez. For the most part, these are very good defensive players and that can help a sinker ball pitcher if he is keeping the ball on the ground.

In 2008, opponents batted .259 when they hit ground balls against Blackburn. That number improved in 2009 to .230 so there were some signs of improvement from the sinker ball pitcher. The problem in recent years has been that this number has ballooned. Last year, opponents hit .324 on ground balls against him.

Blackburn was also able to get very good run support in the Metrodome. He posted a winning record at home in 2008-2009. His ERA was over 4.00 at home in 2009 but he had a 7-4 record. In that same year, his ERA was 30 points lower on the road but his record was 4-7. For his career, he won over 60% of his starts at the Metrodome and he has won less than 50% at Target Field.

It is the last year of Blackburn's deal and it's tough to know what his future will hold. An injury has held him back so far in spring training so there is almost no shot of him starting the year at the MLB level. He is going to have to recuperate and prove to the Twins that he deserves another chance.

Minnesota might not get any value out of Blackburn this year and his future in baseball might be in question. He has a lot to prove in 2013 and there probably aren't a lot of fans that are clamoring to see him back on the mound for the Twins.

The team has 5.5 million reasons to hope for a resurgent Blackburn but the odds certainly aren't looking in his favor.

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