Sunday, March 07, 2010

Nick Blackburn and opportune groundballs

After tossing around 200 innings in each of the last two seasons, Nick Blackburn has been the organization’s most dependable starter, able to digest innings while other members of the rotation succumb to injury or ineffectiveness.  Even more impressive is how the 28-year-old has managed to produce a decent statistical line (22-22, 4.04 ERA) the past two years while allowing 464 hits, the second-most over that time frame, and missing bats on just a 12.7% of the total swings, the third-worst in baseball.

With this type of contact-fetish, most pitchers of that ilk rarely experience any sustained, long-term success. How has Blackburn skirted the punishment that most of his low-strikeout kinfolk suffer?

One of the simplest answers is well-timed groundballs.

While giving up the fourth-most hits in the AL (224) coupled with the 11th highest slugging percentage against (.441), Blackburn averted disaster and completed the year with a better than average ERA (4.05) thanks to the second-most twin-killings (31) in ‘08. Within Blackburn’s batted ball splits that season, the data indicates that the righty was particularly adept at getting a groundball under double-play conditions – 10 percentage points higher than when no runners were on base: 

2008 Batted Ball Splits



Bases empty



Runner (s) On, DP situation



These double-plays helped erase 10% of his total amount of baserunners allowed in ’08.

This past season is another exemplary instance of how Blackburn tip-toed around near catastrophe. After allowing 240 hits (the most in baseball), one would expect a similar spike in runs scored. Once again, while striking out fewer than five batters per nine innings, Blackburn procured a 4.03 ERA. Unlike the previous year, the number of double-plays turned behind him shrank from 31 to 17, in part due to shoddier middle infield defense and the overall regression of his groundball numbers. Instead of an over 50% groundball rate in double-play opportunities like the prior season, Blackburn turned in a 43.2% groundball rate – reverting back towards his career norms.

Where his groundballs prospered in ’09 was with runners in scoring position. Under these conditions, Blackburn was able to increase his groundball rate, inciting a bouncer on 53.8% of balls in play – a stark contrast to his 44.9% when no runners were on or not in scoring position:

2009 Batted Ball Splits



Runner (s) in scoring position



All other circumstances



By keeping the ball on the ground, opponents slugged just .321 in scoring opportunities versus slugging .471 under the other circumstances. What’s more is that a vast majority of those groundballs hit with runners in scoring position resulted in outs.

There is little indication of why Blackburn’s groundball rates spiked in these samples. Pitch data does not reveal any trends that reveal him favoring a pitch or a location that would help explain the variance. In short, he was not doing anything differently under those conditions in either ’08 or ’09 and the likely scenario is that this will regress in 2010 resulting in more runs allowed.

At 28-years-old, Blackburn is on the fringe of exiting what is accepted as a pitcher’s peak years (25-29) so it is possible the Twins have already been recipients of his best seasons and subtle decline will happen as he progresses into his 30s. On top of that, there is perhaps only one right-handed starter that struck out fewer than five batters per nine innings that had a lengthy career (Bob Tewksbury). That said, he’s got little injury history, walks fewer than two batters per nine innings and will transition to a grass infield with a much improved middle infield defense. These factors could allow him to continue to churn out seasons replicating the previous two, in which case $3.5 million per season is a bargain. Just as every multi-billionaire should have a Honda Accord in the back of the garage in the event that the Aston Martin doesn’t start or the Lamborghini tears a rotator cuff, the Twins have secured their reliable vehicle in Blackburn for the next four years by buying out his arbitration years at a very modest cost.