• In Memoriam: Nick Blackburn

    The Twins have announced that starting pitcher Nick Blackburn will have surgery on Friday to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, likely ending both his season and his career in Minnesota. This will be Blackburnís third procedure in the past calendar year, and he has been limited to just six minor league starts this season as a result. With the Twins holding an $8M club option for 2014, this will surely mark the end of his time with the organization.

    Blackburn debuted with the Twins in 2007, appearing in six games out of the bullpen as a September call-up that season. He cracked the starting rotation out of spring training the following year, and put together remarkably similar back-to-back solid campaigns in 2008-09.

    W-L GS IP K% BB% HR/FB ERA FIP fWAR rWAR
    2008 11-11 33 193.1 11.7 4.7 10.0 4.05 4.40 2.4 2.3
    2009 11-11 33 205.2 11.1 4.7 9.4 4.03 4.37 2.9 3.2

    Blackburn parlayed those two years into a four-year contract worth $14M dollars, a deal that bought out all of his arbitration-eligible seasons with the Twins. Unfortunately for both parties, he was never the same pitcher after 2009 Ė put another way, he was awful. Over the next three years, Blackburnís miniscule walk rates regressed, his already terrible strikeout rates got even worse, and his HR/FB rates skyrocketed. Factor in a lost 2013 season, and he has been worth a total of 0.1 WAR over the life of the deal via FanGraphs, and an even sadder -1.7 WAR according to Baseball Reference (!!!).

    For the Twins, the Blackburn contract represents one of the worst in a series of bad moves made by then general manager Bill Smith in his four stellar years at the helm. (Hat tip to Tsuyoshi Nishioka.) Though it seemed defensible at the time given his numbers over the previous two seasons, the deal was essentially a premature long-term investment in a starter incapable of striking batters out. (Blackburnís 11.4% strikeout rate was 5th worst in MLB in that span, among a top 25 that also included future Twins fireballers Mike Pelfrey and Kevin Correia. Ö Just wow).

    It came at a time when smart front offices were increasingly valuing strikeout pitchers, and was a bad harbinger of things to come regarding the teamís approach to targeting and developing starting pitching. Indeed, perhaps no other pitcher epitomizes the ďpitching to contactĒ philosophy that has so haunted the organization in recent years more than Nick Blackburn.

    For all of the hate that I have (perhaps wrongfully) directed at Blackburn over the past four seasons, part of me wanted to see him pitch at Target Field one last time this season. I hope that he bounces back from his most recent surgery and gets a chance to start for another organization next year Ė preferably in the AL Central, for obvious reasons. Regardless, his legend will live on in this blog and elsewhere throughout Twins territory as a symbol of the dark times, and his exit as a sign of better days ahead. Deuces Blackie. #p2c

    Originally published at pitching2contact
    This article was originally published in blog: In Memoriam: Nick Blackburn started by jdotmcmahon
    Comments 23 Comments
    1. John Bonnes's Avatar
      John Bonnes -
      First - nice job Jesse. You're killing it lately.

      Of all the moves that Bill Smith messed up, I gotta say, this is the one that I probably went most ballistic over at the time it happened. D Young-Garza I understood, because I wanted that right-handed power bat. Santana I could forgive, because it was clear the offers the Twins wanted weren't there. Even trading away JJ Hardy was forgivable because I trusted the scouting department on Nishioka. (Oops.)

      But from the moment this contract was signed, I couldn't believe it. And I wasn't alone - the blogosphere hated it. And I liked Blackburn. But this deal never, ever, made any kind of sense.
    1. USAFChief's Avatar
      USAFChief -
      While the Blackburn deal was regrettable (and predictably so), it did nowhere near the damage to this organization that the Young-Garza deal did, or the Santana trade, or the Hardy trade.

      I'd say Young-Garza is forgivable. The other two, not so much. If you don't get what you want for Santana, you keep him, put another 230 innings on his arm, and take the draft picks, and there were those who said so at the time. JJ Hardy for junk was just terrible, and many said so at the time.

      Blackburn cost the Twins only money, and not even all that much in the big scheme of things. No big deal.

      The other deals cost the Twins talent, which IS a big deal.
    1. PseudoSABR's Avatar
      PseudoSABR -
      I can't blame the Twins for liking dependable innings. But these innings were hardly dependable. It's like signing Correia to a five year contract. Go year to year with the innings guys, come on.
    1. raindog's Avatar
      raindog -
      RIP Nick Blackburn
    1. AM.'s Avatar
      AM. -
      Quote Originally Posted by USAFChief View Post
      While the Blackburn deal was regrettable (and predictably so), it did nowhere near the damage to this organization that the Young-Garza deal did, or the Santana trade, or the Hardy trade.

      I'd say Young-Garza is forgivable. The other two, not so much. If you don't get what you want for Santana, you keep him, put another 230 innings on his arm, and take the draft picks, and there were those who said so at the time. JJ Hardy for junk was just terrible, and many said so at the time.

      Blackburn cost the Twins only money, and not even all that much in the big scheme of things. No big deal.

      The other deals cost the Twins talent, which IS a big deal.
      The Hardy deal was mostly Gardy's fault, saying loudly how the Twins needed more speed in the lineup to fit carvernous Target field. Hardy was the "obvious" choice; the slowest guy in the "speedy" positions. Voila; upgrade from Hardy to untested, one-year BABIP-inflated Japanese batting champ Nishioka. There was also speculation Hardy would be hard/expensive to sign long-term, and injury prone. He was signed to a 3/21 extension by the Orioles two or three months into the following season. And he was basically healthy all the next year while Mauer suffered bilateral leg weakness.

      The Hardy trade was so incredibly exasperating, and made me as a fan have lose so much confidence in the organization. When they traded Gomez to get him, I was amazed they managed to land him--a stellar defender at a prime position with power and decent on base numbers. And young too! The fact that they ran him out the door, insisting on trading him for nothing was hideous and so baffling. He had just hit 300/400/500 in the second half of his first season with the Twins after working through an injury.
    1. raindog's Avatar
      raindog -
      Quote Originally Posted by AM. View Post
      The Hardy deal was mostly Gardy's fault, saying loudly how the Twins needed more speed in the lineup to fit carvernous Target field. Hardy was the "obvious" choice; the slowest guy in the "speedy" positions. Voila; upgrade from Hardy to untested, one-year BABIP-inflated Japanese batting champ Nishioka. There was also speculation Hardy would be hard/expensive to sign long-term, and injury prone. He was signed to a 3/21 extension by the Orioles two or three months into the following season. And he was basically healthy all the next year while Mauer suffered bilateral leg weakness.

      The Hardy trade was so incredibly exasperating, and made me as a fan have lose so much confidence in the organization. When they traded Gomez to get him, I was amazed they managed to land him--a stellar defender at a prime position with power and decent on base numbers. And young too! The fact that they ran him out the door, insisting on trading him for nothing was hideous and so baffling. He had just hit 300/400/500 in the second half of his first season with the Twins after working through an injury.
      It was so depressing. That and the Capps trade really made it hard to support the front office.
    1. jimbo92107's Avatar
      jimbo92107 -
      The most frustrating thing about Nick Blackburn's career with the Twins is that you could see he was "this close" to dominating as a pitcher, if only he'd get completely healthy.

      He never got completely healthy. The knee sometimes was tolerable, but then it was the shoulder, or something else.

      Blackburn always had a fiercely competitive attitude. The body just wasn't able to hold up for him. Damn shame.
    1. snepp's Avatar
      snepp -
      Quote Originally Posted by jimbo92107 View Post
      The most frustrating thing about Nick Blackburn's career with the Twins is that you could see he was "this close" to dominating as a pitcher, if only he'd get completely healthy.

      He was "this close" to imploding at any time. Guys that have to walk the tightest of ropes every time out aren't going to dominate.
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      What amazed me with Blackburn is that the Twins never tried to turn him into a pen guy, like they did with, another failed starter, Perkins. In the minors Blackburn used to have a four-seamer (which he practically abandoned in the majors for the sinker) that used to run up to 97. He could have really been a good pen part and even maybe earn the contract money.

      Hope he turns it around for a National league team that does not play the Twins
    1. PeanutsFromHeaven's Avatar
      PeanutsFromHeaven -
      Quote Originally Posted by jimbo92107 View Post
      Blackburn always had a fiercely competitive attitude. The body just wasn't able to hold up for him. Damn shame.
      Right with you Jimbo. It's always sad to see someone's career crumble because of something they have no control over. To be sure he was struggling mightily long before the demotion and surgery ended his career (as this article shows very well), but there's always hope for any player, especially if you have the right attitude.

      I understand the frustration with his deal in hindsight, but I have a hard time faulting the Twins for projecting improvement based on the previous two years and wanting to solidify the rotation internally--especially since the cost of free agent starting pitchers is prohibitive for the budget. It didn't turn out right...better $14 million wasted on Blackburn than $36 million on Oliver Perez or 100s of Millions on mega busts like Brown, Zito and Hampton. (I know it's not an either or with those signings, but not paying Blackburn is not a guarantee it would have been spent any better)
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      I miss that he was more fun to mock than this bunch. He was the new Joe Mays after all!
    1. jdotmcmahon's Avatar
      jdotmcmahon -
      Thanks John, and to everyone else for the input. My take on the various deals discussed above...

      - Santana: Smith tried to play the Yanks and Sox against each other in a bidding war, and for the first time ever they both backed down...maybe he overplayed his hand, but I don't fault him for doing so. Based on other reported offers, getting Jon Lester would have probably been the best play, but hindsight is 20/20. Phil Hughes obviously hasn't amounted to anything special, and Carlos Gomez has developed into a pretty special talent (albeit for the Brewers). I hated losing Santana as much as anyone, but he was never the same pitcher after leaving Minny, and the Mets basically got three years out of him and (no-hitter aside) have been paying a steep price for his contract since.

      - Garza: I'd say the biggest takeaway from this deal is that you don't trade good pitching for good hitting, as the former has repeatedly proven so much harder to come by. The Twins obviously overrated the talent of their other starting pitchers at the time, and have been paying the price ever since. And regarding Delmon, based purely on talent, he will surely go down as one of the biggest underachievers in MLB history.

      - Hardy: I was honestly surprised to hear how upset people were about this deal, and I don't even put it among Mr. Smith's bad deals pantheon. The Twins bought low on Hardy hoping to get his 2007-2008 Brewers production. What they got was roughly an average shortstop that missed 50+ games due to injury. Their logic in signing him to a one year deal was proven correct the following year, when he returned to his All-Star form with the Orioles, but he's been roughly league average since (though he has managed to stay healthy). The lack of an effective replacement probably makes letting him go look more egregious in hindsight, but I don't fault the front office at all for letting him go. They gave him one year to prove himself, he didn't, so they cut bait and moved on. Stuff happens.

      - Blackburn: As noted in the article, the deal was at least somewhat defensible at the time based on his production. However, my problems with the deal are two-fold. For one, Blackburn wasn't arbitration eligible for another year, meaning the Twins could have simply waited another year and still extended him at close to the same price had he stayed effective. I don't think there was any real threat that he was going to go out and have such an incredible 2010 that would have drastically increased the price of buying out his arb-eligible years. More importantly, the deal reflected the team's increasingly problematic inability to properly evaluate pitchers in light of available information (i.e. the value of strikeouts), one that has probably set the organization back five years given what has happened over the past three seasons.

      - Capps: I put the Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos deal in Billy's top three...injuries and kidnapping aside, Ramos is a beast and you have to get more for him than saves.

      Regardless of how you rank them, a rough stretch for the front office to say the least.
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      The most depressing thing about the Capps deal is that it only happened because Ramos' injury derailed a deal for Cliff Lee. Talk about a double gut punch.
    1. SpiritofVodkaDave's Avatar
      SpiritofVodkaDave -
      I always likes Blackburn. He was a solid #4 until the injuries and regression hit. The contract sucked, but at the end of the day it didn't exactly cripple the org, it was 4 mil a year basically.
    1. old nurse's Avatar
      old nurse -
      Blackburn was never the same after the first injury. He did not throw his slider as much, his sinker didn't move as much.
    1. Mr. Brooks's Avatar
      Mr. Brooks -
      Quote Originally Posted by jdotmcmahon View Post
      Thanks John, and to everyone else for the input. My take on the various deals discussed above...

      - Santana: Smith tried to play the Yanks and Sox against each other in a bidding war, and for the first time ever they both backed down...maybe he overplayed his hand, but I don't fault him for doing so. Based on other reported offers, getting Jon Lester would have probably been the best play, but hindsight is 20/20. Phil Hughes obviously hasn't amounted to anything special, and Carlos Gomez has developed into a pretty special talent (albeit for the Brewers). I hated losing Santana as much as anyone, but he was never the same pitcher after leaving Minny, and the Mets basically got three years out of him and (no-hitter aside) have been paying a steep price for his contract since.

      - Garza: I'd say the biggest takeaway from this deal is that you don't trade good pitching for good hitting, as the former has repeatedly proven so much harder to come by. The Twins obviously overrated the talent of their other starting pitchers at the time, and have been paying the price ever since. And regarding Delmon, based purely on talent, he will surely go down as one of the biggest underachievers in MLB history.

      - Hardy: I was honestly surprised to hear how upset people were about this deal, and I don't even put it among Mr. Smith's bad deals pantheon. The Twins bought low on Hardy hoping to get his 2007-2008 Brewers production. What they got was roughly an average shortstop that missed 50+ games due to injury. Their logic in signing him to a one year deal was proven correct the following year, when he returned to his All-Star form with the Orioles, but he's been roughly league average since (though he has managed to stay healthy). The lack of an effective replacement probably makes letting him go look more egregious in hindsight, but I don't fault the front office at all for letting him go. They gave him one year to prove himself, he didn't, so they cut bait and moved on. Stuff happens.

      - Blackburn: As noted in the article, the deal was at least somewhat defensible at the time based on his production. However, my problems with the deal are two-fold. For one, Blackburn wasn't arbitration eligible for another year, meaning the Twins could have simply waited another year and still extended him at close to the same price had he stayed effective. I don't think there was any real threat that he was going to go out and have such an incredible 2010 that would have drastically increased the price of buying out his arb-eligible years. More importantly, the deal reflected the team's increasingly problematic inability to properly evaluate pitchers in light of available information (i.e. the value of strikeouts), one that has probably set the organization back five years given what has happened over the past three seasons.

      - Capps: I put the Matt Capps for Wilson Ramos deal in Billy's top three...injuries and kidnapping aside, Ramos is a beast and you have to get more for him than saves.

      Regardless of how you rank them, a rough stretch for the front office to say the least.
      A) JJ Hardy has been better than league average. He's ranked 4th, 11th, and 7th (current season) among MLB SS (in WAR) since leaving here.

      B) Even if we concede that he is league average, you don't trade a league average SS for Jim Hoey. Trading someone for Jim Hoey is giving them away, and you don't just give away a league average SS, especially when you have no proven replacement.
    1. jdotmcmahon's Avatar
      jdotmcmahon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mr. Brooks View Post
      A) JJ Hardy has been better than league average. He's ranked 4th, 11th, and 7th (current season) among MLB SS (in WAR) since leaving here.

      B) Even if we concede that he is league average, you don't trade a league average SS for Jim Hoey. Trading someone for Jim Hoey is giving them away, and you don't just give away a league average SS, especially when you have no proven replacement.
      Just to clarify, he's definitely been better than league average since leaving, but in his one season w/Twins and the previous one with the Brewers he was roughly a league average SS - and that is the player they were evaluating, not the guy he's played like since.

      Second, to say they traded him straight up for Jim Hoey is a bit strong. He was a $5M player who had missed 50+ games in back to back seasons, and rather than let him walk for nothing they tried to salvage his value in the offseason. Getting something is generally better than getting nothing (although Hoey turned out to be nothing).

      I am by no means defending letting him go. I loved the signing and thought they bailed on him way too early. Just trying to see things from the front office's POV at the time. The lack of a legit replacement is pretty indefensible though, and makes the sequence all the more egregious.
    1. snepp's Avatar
      snepp -
      Hoey didn't "turn out" to be nothing, he was nothing right from day one.
    1. TheLeviathan's Avatar
      TheLeviathan -
      This is purely speculation, but I've always laid the blame for Hardy on Gardy. I don't think Gardy wanted anything to do with him and that precipitated the trade.
    1. Mr. Brooks's Avatar
      Mr. Brooks -
      Quote Originally Posted by jdotmcmahon View Post
      Just to clarify, he's definitely been better than league average since leaving, but in his one season w/Twins and the previous one with the Brewers he was roughly a league average SS - and that is the player they were evaluating, not the guy he's played like since.

      Second, to say they traded him straight up for Jim Hoey is a bit strong. He was a $5M player who had missed 50+ games in back to back seasons, and rather than let him walk for nothing they tried to salvage his value in the offseason. Getting something is generally better than getting nothing (although Hoey turned out to be nothing).

      I am by no means defending letting him go. I loved the signing and thought they bailed on him way too early. Just trying to see things from the front office's POV at the time. The lack of a legit replacement is pretty indefensible though, and makes the sequence all the more egregious.
      So you are saying they sold at his lowest possible value? Shocking.
      IMO, there is no spin that can justify this move, although I respect your attempt to do so.
      Bill Smith was in way over his head, but the scariest part is that by the Twins own admission, Terry Ryan was still heavily involved in the Bill Smith era, which makes it confusing when I hear people try to give Ryan a pass for "the mess that Bill Smith left him". (Not saying you are doing that, just going a bit off topic.)
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