Career Profile: Nick Blackburn
A reader requested that I take a look at Minnesota Twins pitcher Nick Blackburn. I think this is an interesting sabermetric case, so here goes.
I did a Rookie Profile for Blackburn back in September of 2008:
Nick Blackburn was drafted by the Twins in the 29th round in the 2001 class, out of Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma. He signed in the spring of 2002, then struggled at rookie level Elizabethton, with a 5.00 ERA. He did post a decent 62/21 K/BB ratio, but didn't really stand out as a prospect. I didn't put him in my book for 2002, and indeed I didn't put him in ANY books until 2008.
Blackburn pitched for Quad Cities in the Midwest League in 2003, going 2-9, 4.86 with a 40/18 K/BB in 76 innings, showing good control but little else. He returned to Quad Cities in 2004 and pitched well, with a 2.77 mark and a 66/23 K/BB in 84 innings. Promoted to Fort Myers, he struggled and gaveup 51 hits in 37 innings, resulting in a 6.27 ERA. At this point he was a Grade C prospect at best, a guy with an OK arm and good control but with little consistent success against pro hitters.
He split 2005 at three levels: 3.36 ERA with 55/16 K/BB in 93 innings for Fort Myers, 2-4, 1.84 with a 27/10 K/BB in 49 innings for Double-A New Britain, and a 5.14 ERA wiht a 7/3 K/BB and 20 hits allowed in 14 innings for Triple-A Rochester. He started to get a bit of attention as a prospect at this point, though he'd still rate as jus ta Grade C due to his low strikeout rate.
Blackburn had a mediocre season in Double-A in 2006, going 7-8, 4.42 with a 81/37 K/BB and 141 hits allowed in 132 innings. At thsi point there was nothing going on to make me think he would be anything more than a Double-A/Triple-A strike thrower.
That changed in 2007. He started off at New Britain again, going 3-1, 3.08 with an 18/7 K/BB in 38 innings with 36 hits allowed. Moved up when Rochester needed a pitcher, he went on a tear and threw 41.1 scoreless innings. He finished with a 2.11 ERA and a 57/12 K/BB in 110 innings for Rochester, 91 hits allowed. He was very hittable during a brief trial in Minnesota, giving up 19 hits and 12 runs in 11 innings. But he had clearly emerged as a prospect to watch.
Blackburn's emergence last year was a result of better conditioning, which gave him more physical strrength and added some oomph to his fastball, previously a mid-80s pitch but now in the 88-92 range, sometimes even higher. More velocity with the heater made his other pitches (cutter, curveball, slider, and changeup) more effective. I wrote up Blackburn in the 2008 Baseball Prospect Book as an inning-eating strike thrower, a Grade C+ and possible fifth starter or long reliever. Baseball America went so far as to rate him the Top Prospect in the Twins system entering 2008, a ranking that I strongly disagreed with, thinking they were overestimating him. It turned out that I was underestimating him.
Blackburn has ended up being the anchor of the Twins rotation, making 30 starts and 181 innings pitched, going 10-9, 3.89 with a 91/31 K/BB and 206 hits allowed. How sustainable is this? His strikeout rate is still rather low. His component marks indicate his ERA "should" be around 4.20 or 4.30, not 3.89, so he's had some luck on his side and good support from his teammates. Even so, a 4.25 ERA and the ability to eat innings with good command is quite valuable.
The low strikeout rate still concerns me, and in the long run I think Kevin Slowey, Scott Baker, and Francisco Liriano are better bets for sustained success. Blackburn kind of reminds me more of a Joe Mays or Allan Anderson type than a Kevin Tapani or Brad Radke, although I don't want to dismiss his chances. But sabermetrically, Slowey and Baker are better bets in the long run than Blackburn.
Blackburn's final numbers in 2008 were an 11-11 record, 4.05 ERA, 103 ERA+, 4.40 FIP, with a 96/39 K/BB in 193 innings, 224 hits allowed, 2.5 WAR. 2009 was very similar: 11-11, 4.03, 109 ERA+, 4.37 FIP, 98/41 K/BB in 206 innings, 240 hits allowed, 3.0 WAR.
2010 was different. The won/loss numbers didn't change much at 10-12, but his ERA shot up to 5.42 (ERA+ 77, FIP 5.07) with 194 hits in 161 innings, 0.4 WAR. Over the last three years, Blackburn's K/9 ratio has declined from 4.5 to 4.3 to 3.8. His H/IP has gradually crept up, and his control was a bit worse last year, his BB/9 rising from 1.8 to 2.2. He spent some time back in the minors, and had elbow surgery in October to remove a bone spur, though no structural damage was found.
For his career, Blackburn is now 32-36, 4.50 with a 94 ERA+, a 270/122 K/BB in 572 innings, 677 hits allowed, 5.9 WAR. He's on the payroll for $3 million this year, $4.75 million in 2012, $5.5 million in 2013, and a team option for $8 million in 2014. Although he may perhaps rebound some this year with the elbow issue behind him, I don't think this will be money well-spent in the long run.
Blackburn's stuff has never been truly plus and he lives on the margins, reflected in his poor strikeout rates. His two best skills were the ability to throw strikes and (until last year) eat innings, and pitching in front of a good defense he can survive. However, the same thing could be said about the two ex-Twins I compared him to back in 2008: Allan Anderson and Joe Mays, strike-throwers with mediocre-to-average stuff who had a bout of success but couldn't sustain it for long.
Most Similar Pitchers to Blackburn through age 28: Josh Towers, Mike Harkey, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Sirotka, Roy Smith, Brian Bannister, Rodrigo Lopez, Aaron Cook, Art Ditmar, and Armando Galarraga. This list doesn't make me very optimistic about his chances past the age of 30.
My guess is that a healthy Blackburn can rebound in '11 and return to his '08/'09 standards, eating innings with an ERA a little above league average. Will he be doing that 2013 or 2014? I doubt it.