The San Francisco Giants have promoted right-hander Clayton Blackburn to the big league roster, replacing outfielder Jarrett Parker who has been sent back to Triple-A. Blackburn has been a somewhat controversial but successful prospect the last few years. Let's explore why.
From the 2016 Baseball Prospect Book
Clayton Blackburn, RHP, San Francisco Giants
Bats: L Throws: R HT: 6-3 WT: 230 DOB: January 6, 1993
2012: Grade C+; 2013: Grade B+; 2014: Grade B; 2015: Grade B
Look, I have been pushing Clayton Blackburn as a prospect for, oh, five years now. Yes, he doesn’t throw 98 MPH, but after leading the Pacific Coast League in ERA in 2015 there seem to be fewer skeptics. As noted last year, with his solid-average fastball and wide assortment of secondary pitches (slider, curve, cutter, change-up) he can hit every velocity slot between 68 and 93 MPH. Pitchers need options and Blackburn has a lot of them. Pardon the jargon, but Blackburn’s arsenal works synergistically: by itself each individual pitch isn’t plus, but they work together so well that everything plays up. Call him the gestalt pitcher. He mixes everything with ease, throws strikes, keeps the ball down, avoids homers, doesn’t beat himself, and stays calm on the mound when things go wrong. Sure, he’s a big body guy but he’s avoided serious health issues and has overcome minor injuries. He’s a pitcher so bad things can still happen, but Blackburn has done everything possible to prove himself. All he needs now is an opportunity and, barring a serious physical problem, he has a really good chance to be an above-average starting pitcher. Grade B+.
I have been one of the high guys on Blackburn so his 2016 season has been a bit disappointing: 5.68 ERA in seven games, six starts, with a 22/10 K/BB in 32 innings with 44 hits allowed. However, most of the damage came in poor starts on April 28th and May 8th; his other starts were more successful and more in line with what he did last year. Overall, between this year and last year Blackburn has pitched 155 innings in Triple-A with a 3.43 ERA and 122/42 K/BB, very credible performance for the Pacific Coast League.
There is a pattern to Blackburn's career. When he gets hit hard (usually early in the season), the skeptics point out his lack of physical projection or gaudy radar readings and downplay his chances. But he's always righted the ship, made adjustments, and ended up finishing his seasons with strong numbers. His track record is one of success in every season; his worst career FIP in a full season was 3.86 back in the difficult California League in 2013. He's always posted excellent K/BB ratios, reflecting his command.
As noted pre-season, Blackburn is a pitcher so something can always go awry, especially for a guy who relies on pitchability and fine margins. But if the past is any guide, he has a good shot at being a reliable strike-throwing inning-eater, perhaps more. Don't under-estimate him.