Monday, February 16, 2009

Nick Blackburn is Better Than They Think

A lot of us were taken by surprise last winter when Baseball America ranked Nick Blackburn the Twins' #1 prospect. They saw something that most prognosticators didn't, but Blackburn's 2008 season seemed to prove them right. I would have expected Blackburn's projection for 2009 to be more optimistic based on that performance. (I suppose it is, relative to what was out there last year.) PECOTA has him throwing 160 IP over 25 GS, with a 5.22 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and 75/42 K/BB ratio. This following a season in which he threw 193.1 IP over 33 GS, with a 4.05 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and 96/39 K/BB ratio.

Why the down projection? Is there some indicator in Blackburn's minor league history that would suggest a regression is likely? Was he just really lucky last year?

To answer the recent history question, here are Blackburn's BB and K numbers from each level over the last 4 seasons:

2005: 93.7 IP, 16 BB, 55 K, 1.5 BB/9, 5.3 K/9 at A+
2005: 49.0 IP, 10 BB, 27 K, 1.8 BB/9, 5.0 K/9 at AA
2005: 14.0 IP, 3 BB, 7 K, 1.9 BB/9, 4.5 K/9 at AAA
2006: 132.1 IP, 37 BB, 81 K, 2.5 BB/9, 5.5 K/9 at AA
2007: 38.0 IP, 7 BB, 18 K, 1.7 BB/9, 4.3 K/9 at AA
2007: 110.2 IP, 12 BB, 57 K, 1.0 BB/9, 4.6 K/9 at AAA
2007: 11.2 IP, 2 BB, 8 K, 1.5 BB/9, 6.2 K/9 at MLB
2008: 193.1 IP, 39 BB, 96 K, 1.8 BB/9, 4.6 K/9 at MLB

A couple of those stops have such small sample sizes that they aren't really worth talking about, but you can see the pattern. It should have come as no surprise that Blackburn was able to put up a BB/9 under 2.0 and K/9 between 4.5 and 5.0 in 2008. But PECOTA couldn't fathom it - those normal for Blackburn numbers were absolutely off the charts according to last year's projection. In its most generous version of his possible 2008, it couldn't see him doing better than 2.3 BB/9 and 4.0 K/9. Though it's significantly increased his forecasted innings and shaved a little off his ERA and WHIP, it still has him at 2.4 BB/9 and 4.2 K/9. Whah? Why should a pitcher entering his peak years suddenly have notably poorer control numbers? I don't buy it.

What about luck?

Here are his HR/9 and BABIP numbers over those same levels:

2005: 0.5 HR/9, .302 BABIP at A+
2005: 0.2 HR/9, .239 BABIP at AA
2005: 1.3 HR/9, .346 BABIP at AAA
2006: 0.7 HR/9, .310 BABIP at AA
2007: 0.2 HR/9, .267 BABIP at AA
2007: 0.6 HR/9, .255 BABIP at AAA
2007: 1.5 HR/9, .405 BABIP at MLB
2008: 1.1 HR/9, .329 BABIP at MLB

Again, giving a little less emphasis to some of the teeny sample sizes there, it should be apparent that a lucky season for Blackburn looks like 2005 or 2007 - HR/9 under 0.7 and BABIP under .300. It stands to reason that those rates could be significantly lower than 2008 in some forthcoming MLB season. PECOTA judged that Blackburn would need a BABIP of .288 to reach the ERA and WHIP numbers he actually accumulated last season. But by drastically exceeding the PECOTA BB/9 numbers, Blackburn made room for himself to have a lot more balls fall in for hits.

Setting aside the projections for a moment, I want to see what I can glean from the games Blackburn pitched last season. Checking out his game log, some things pop out at me:

Over his final 53.1 IP (27.6% of the season) he allowed 66 H (29.4%), 10 HR (43.5%) and 20 BB (51.3%).

He allowed 8 of his HR (34.8%) in 2 lousy starts.

He didn't get a win in 5 games he left with the lead, and had another in which the tying run scored on an error on what should have been the final out of the 7th inning. His offense only bailed him out of 2 of the games he left trailing.

In 16 starts from April-June, he threw as many as 95 pitches only once, despite pitching well enough to keep the Twins in the game into the 6th inning in 11 of them. Based on pitch count and the score, one could argue that Blackburn could have pitched deeper into 16 of his 33 starts last year.

15 of the 102 R Blackburn allowed were unearned, indicating that poor defense behind him extended several innings.

Based on that information, I would surmise that Blackburn would have easily surpassed 200 IP had he not been a rookie (Gardy would have let him get closer to 100 pitches more often early in the season) and had his defense played better behind him. With a bit better support from his teammates at the plate and in the bullpen, it isn't outlandish to think that he could have won 16 games. As the season wore on, he either tired, or the scouting reports caught up to him. Since his BABIP remained relatively unchanged, I'm inclined to think that he just hung more pitches, which would also explain the increase in walks - he just wasn't as good at locating over his final 10 starts. As a control pitcher with mediocre stuff, opponents know he's going to be around the plate, and that he's hittable, so they take their swings early. That will always result in a high H/9, but it will also help with his efficiency.

To get an even more focused idea of what a typical Blackburn start looked like in 2008, I'm going to throw out his 2 most exceptionally good and bad games. Namely:

4/2 vs. LAA: 7.0 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 15/4 GB/FB (for the season, his GB/FB was 0.84)
7/2 vs. DET: 7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K
6/27 vs. MIL: 4.2 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 0 BB, 5 K, 4 HR
9/14 vs BAL: 4.0 IP, 9 H, 6 ER, 0 BB, 2 K, 4 HR (there were four different months last year in which Blackburn didn't allow 4 HR)

Removing those outliers leaves this line for his remaining 29 starts:

170.2 IP, 198 H, 74 ER, 15 HR, 37 BB, 79 K, 3.90 ERA, 0.8 HR/9, 1.38 WHIP, 2.0 BB/9, 4.2 K/9, just shy of 6.0 IP/GS.

As I think about what to expect from Blackburn in 2009, those last 4 rates are the worst numbers I'd anticipate. But because I think Gardy will allow him to pitch deeper into games this season now that he's got a full season and some big games under his belt, and because I bet he won't see quite as many defensive miscues behind him this year, and because I expect him to be able to maintain his BB/9 and K/9 rates from the first 4 months of 2008 a little bit deeper into 2009, and because I think there's a decent chance that his BABIP will be lower than last year's, I believe that Blackburn can put up even better numbers this year than he did in 2008. I certainly don't think he'll have any trouble outperforming the projections.

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