• Powers: Nick Blackburn makes adjustments

    Nick Blackburn’s greatest redeeming quality is his ability to consume innings. Unfortunately, for the past two consecutive seasons, he has not come close to proving his worth in this department.

    When he was not sidelined by injuries, Blackburn pitched on either side of the spectrum for the Twins. One month - like May 2011 where he went 3-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 42 innings pitched - he would be dazzling, using his sinker effectively and keeping opponents off-balanced. The next month – like July in which he went 1-2 with a 7.45 ERA in 29 innings – he’d have fallen apart and was beaten senseless across the field. Naturally, injuries played a significant role in his bi-polar performances and helps explain his decline to some degree.

    But Blackburn has come into camp healthier following his second-straight offseason with an elbow procedure and, according to the Pioneer Press’s Tom Powers, he has made a series of adjustments that they hope will improve his numbers against right-handed hitters:

    Blackburn has suffered a series of nagging injuries in recent years. He is coming off offseason surgery to repair an entangled nerve in his right forearm. After several bullpen sessions in which he demonstrated very little control, Blackburn appears to have grown accustomed to his one major adjustment of the spring: He's moved from the first base side of the pitching rubber to the middle.

    "It's helping me get over the whole arm issue," he said. "Everything is really strong right now."

    Moving to the center of the rubber makes it harder for right-handed batters to pick up the ball. He's able to "hide it" longer during his delivery. The new position also has resulted in a more over-the-top pitching angle, which is easier on the arm.
    Shifting on the rubber is not an uncommon practice among pitchers. In 2011, pitch f/x guru Mike Fast found that some premier pitchers such as Cole Hamels, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander all made in-season adjustments by shifting their starting point. In their cases, all three hurlers moved to the first base side of the rubber. By shifting to the middle, Blackburn is hoping to add a bit of deception to his repertoire to combat right-handed foes.

    And the changes are completely necessary for Blackie. Over the past two seasons, right-handers have feasted on his offerings. In 2010, they hit a robust .318/.352/.485 in 345 plate appearances. Those totals increased this past season when they hit .316/.362/.507 in 318 plate appearances. This is starkly different from his results pre-2010 when he last threw his slider successfully. While hiding the ball longer may improve his marks, having a secondary pitch such as his slider would likely go further towards curbing righties.

    Keep in mind that spring training is a time where promises are often made and the regular season is where they are not kept. Last year, Jose Mijares received glowing reviews about his new two-seamer. That did not exactly pan out for the big lefty. As the spring progresses, be sure to monitor how Blackburn fares against same-sided opponents.
    This article was originally published in blog: Shipley: Nick Blackburn makes adjustments started by Parker Hageman
    Comments 9 Comments
    1. jeffk's Avatar
      jeffk -
      I think he's an interesting case because I often see him written off as "mediocre, 5th-starter-at-best". But as Parker points out, you see almost Liriano-like variation from month to month. Not that he has near the kind of stuff that Liriano has, but it's easier to be hopeful about a guy who shows flashes of really good play than it is about a guy who just goes out there every week and gives up 3-4 runs in 5-6 innings.
    1. Thrylos's Avatar
      Thrylos -
      Quote Originally Posted by jeffk View Post
      I think he's an interesting case because I often see him written off as "mediocre, 5th-starter-at-best". But as Parker points out, you see almost Liriano-like variation from month to month. Not that he has near the kind of stuff that Liriano has, but it's easier to be hopeful about a guy who shows flashes of really good play than it is about a guy who just goes out there every week and gives up 3-4 runs in 5-6 innings.
      Not Liriano-like variation. Liriano varies from brilliant to awful while Blackburn varies from slightly above average to awful.
    1. whydidnt's Avatar
      whydidnt -
      Well, I think it's more about luck than anything else. When your entire strategy is to let the hitters hit the ball, then a large percentage of your success/failure is going to be based upon the luck of where the ball is hit. That's the problem with the Twins pitch to contact strategy, sometimes luck is on your side and all the balls are hit at fielders, and sometimes they find the hole.
    1. Paul's Avatar
      Paul -
      T98, Couldn't disagree more with your Blackburn assessment. His strength is his sinker. IMO it's one of the best when it's working and he keeps it down. He mixes that with an adequate slider and changes speeds well. I read his forearm injury last year kept him from throwing the slider, so I'm sure batters would sit on the sinker. I think Blackburn's main problem (other than health) is his apparent lack of mastery of the sinker. He's close, but for some reason it comes and goes for him. It's a real finesse pitch. The required pronation is much more difficult to master than the slider's required supination. The coaching staff likes him a lot because he is so close. I like his motion a lot. It's simple, basic and not extreme in any component. To me, these factors maximize his likelyhood to be able to repeat his mechanics. I'm sure the coaches see this also and like his potential upside. I don't think his sinker is as good as Brandon Webb's but, I've seen him dominate a game like Webb so I know his ceiling. And, with his minimalist motion, I believe he's positioned himself the best he can to reach it.

      As for the positioning on the rubber thing, that always seemed like smoke to me. I used to screw around with it a bit and other than varying the angular approach of the ball to the batter the tiniest angular fraction (about 6 inches over 60 feet 6 inches) I saw no value. The batter still faces you. You still have to direct your motion to your target. You won't hide the ball longer (be more deceptive) unless you change your motion. I think the moving on the rubber thing is another example example of people trying to "find meaning" in minutia. I think the cited pitchers were just mixing it up. Finding a groove. Showing the batter a different look. If someone can logically explain this deception thing to me I'd appreciate it.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      @Paul -- Good points. And I feel a little bit like you do in terms of the rubber shifting being more of a mental exercise of being comfortable rather than something that changes anything too much.

      I don't have the information on hand but one of the recent pitch f/x summits had a study that showed that for every inch a player moved on the rubber closer to the same-sided hitter, the better they were at inducing a swing a miss -- or something similar to that. That may or may not be deception-based or simply being able to locate a pitch better (working the inner-half better) even if you just slide a half a foot over.

      He mixes that with an adequate slider and changes speeds well. I read his forearm injury last year kept him from throwing the slider, so I'm sure batters would sit on the sinker.
      He MIXED in an adequate slider but he really has not done so since 2009. In 2010, then-Indian Russell Branyan told Blackburn after the season that the team knew that he was unable to throw that pitch and they all sat on his sinker.
    1. Paul's Avatar
      Paul -
      Parker, another thing about the rubber...I would never hesitate a move simply to avoid the other guy's landing pit. It could be that simple. I don't want to give the impression I'm a pitcher. You could probably count the serious games I've pitched in digitally without taking your socks off. I could throw hard and had a good finish so I got a lot of movement but the whole command thing escaped me. But I'm a lifelong student of the game. I consider it an art form. My art form.

      I'd like you to know that I really appreciate what you guys are doing here with TwinsDaily. This has become my first, and frequently only, stop for Twins info. I especially enjoy your stuff as you provide a statistical perspective for me that I've come to trust. (Notwithstanding the inch by inch rubber thing.) I understand and enjoy the function of statistics but do not seek out the "new" ones for baseball. (I'm embarrassed to say I don't even know what "pitch f/x summits" is.) I do know I get pleasure from the times your statistical perspective agrees with what I see. Anyway, you should know you have at least one happy customer.

      By the way, good call on that Calif HS pitcher.
    1. Parker Hageman's Avatar
      Parker Hageman -
      @Paul -- Thanks.

      If you are someone who is looking to study pitching, hitter, etc to a more refined science, Pitch F/X is the mechanism that will help. If you are not familiar, pitch f/x is a system that MLB has implemented around the country that is made up of several cameras that capture each pitch release, tracks its path and how and where it crosses the plate. If you are not looking at this information already, I highly suggest you look into it. The summit is put on by SportsVision, the company that keeps all the data. They release the information and data to the public and a lot of very intelligent people conduct studies on that and have provided a lot of insight. One person, Mike Fast, was recently hired by the Houston Astros.
    1. Fanatic Jack's Avatar
      Fanatic Jack -
      Blackburn had two solid seasons (2008 & 2009) for the Twins where he threw over 190 innings. The last few years he has struggled to stay healthy and his numbers have went dramatically down. His innings pitched went down, his walk totals went up, and his ERA suffered because of it. There is no doubt the 4-year contract (2010-2013) was a bad deal financially for the Twins. However, with Baker ($9.5 option), Liriano, Pavano, and Marquis all potentially leaving as free agents in 2013 it would be nice to have some stability with the #5 spot in the rotation. If Blackburn could chew up more innings and keep the ball out of the seats, he would be much more valuable.
    1. Clare Chen's Avatar
      Clare Chen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Fanatic Jack View Post
      Blackburn had two solid seasons (2008 & 2009) for the Twins where he threw over 190 innings. The last few years he has struggled to stay healthy and his numbers have went dramatically down. His innings pitched went down, his walk totals went up, and his ERA suffered because of it. There is no doubt the 4-year contract (2010-2013) was a bad deal financially for the Twins. However, with Baker ($9.5 option), Liriano, Pavano, and Marquis all potentially leaving as free agents in 2013 it would be nice to have some stability with the #5 spot in the rotation. If Blackburn could chew up more innings and keep the ball out of the seats, he would be much more valuable.
      My guess is that Blackburn's elevated home run rate from last year was because of his greatly-diminished command, like his walk rate. I think a similar thing happened to Baker in '09 and '10.
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