San Francisco Giants pitching prospect Clayton Blackburn spent this past April in extended spring training, rehabbing a minor shoulder problem. Activated last week and assigned to Triple-A Sacramento in the Pacific Coast League, Blackburn has looked sharp in his first two starts, particularly yesterday's contest between the River Cats and Las Vegas in which he threw six shutout innings with six strikeouts.
Overall in 11 innings over his two starts he has a 10/4 K/BB, just six hits allowed, and two earned runs for a 1.64 ERA. Right now there doesn't seem to be any lingering effects from the shoulder trouble.
Drafted from an Oklahoma high school in the 16th round in 2011, Blackburn has always been successful so the early PCL success is not out of context: he entered 2015 with a career 2.98 ERA, 405/76 K/BB in 396 minor league innings including a 3.29, 85/20 K/BB in 93 frames of Double-A last year. Despite his consistency, expert opinion remains a bit mixed on him.
He doesn't look like a pitcher is supposed to look, weighing in somewhere between 230 and 260 pounds depending on when the measurement is taken. He doesn't have the "electric body" that scouts want to see. He can get his fastball to 93-94 MPH but more often works in the upper-80s. He has a curve, a hybrid slider/cutter, and a change-up, but none of his pitches rate more than average according to most observers.
Despite all of that, Blackburn has been a consistent success because of his command. His pitching instincts are excellent and helps everything play up. He has both control and command, avoiding excessive walks but also able to locate his four pitches to specific locations. He can also hit every velocity spot between 68 and 94 MPH and has become more consistent with his delivery mechanics over the last couple of years.
This video is a year old but gives the general idea of how his game works:
Like all pitchers who lack hot fastballs, Blackburn doesn't have a huge margin for error and projects more as a number four inning-eater type than any sort of ace, according to scouting and expert consensus anyway. My view is that his talent is still somewhat under-appreciated and that he could be more of a number three type, for some teams at least.
Either way, the offense-heavy PCL is a good preparatory school. We will monitor his performance but if his shoulder doesn't act up again we should see him in the majors later this year.