Nick Blackburn deserves a lot of credit for his performance in Friday night’s 8-5 win over the Chicago White Sox. His first inning, in which the Sox battered him for five runs, made some fans (who shall remain nameless) angry enough to throw objects at the television, as they tend to do in blowout losses. It was so bad that Adam Dunn, who had something like two hits in his last 3,146 at bats, blasted a homer off Blackburn. But the Twins soon erased the Chicago lead. And though Blackburn always seemed to be just one more screaming liner away from being yanked out of the game, he somehow managed to eke out five innings for the win. It was a gritty performance from a pitcher who skated on thin ice all evening.
In a way, that game can be seen as a symbol for the pattern that has shaped Blackburn’s career. His performances always seem to even out in the end. Look at the won-loss records for the last three years have been 11-11, 11-11, and 10-12. Before spiking to last year, Blackburn’s ERA totals in 2008 and 2009 were 4.05 and 4.03 respectively (slightly better than league average). If you just looked at Blackburn’s stats and didn’t watch him actually pitch, you’d be tempted to give him a bland nickname like “Average Joe” or “Even Stephen” (if you were the type of person who likes to give baseball players boring nicknames, that is).
But “Even” is probably the most misleading adjective a person could ever apply to Blackburn. It seems that every year he cruises along through the first part of the season before encountering a severe rough patch somewhere in the middle, then miraculously getting better late in the year. Every summer Blackburn turns into a completely different man on the mound, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Look at the results of the last three seasons from Blackburn:
Blackburn was incredible in the first half of the season. He cruised into the All Star Break with a record of 8-4 and a 3.06 ERA. His last five starts before the break were particularly encouraging. Three of them were complete games. Blackburn did not make the All Star team, but few people would have complained if he had. But right after the break, disaster struck. Instead of grounding weakly to the Twins’ infielders, hitters were raking Blackburn’s pitches all over the field. Over the next six starts between July 20th and August 16th, Blackburn gave up 29 earned runs in 25.1 innings – a 10.33 ERA.
Then, as suddenly as they had begun, Blackburn’s troubles stopped. He posted a respectable 3.41 ERA in September to close out the year.
April was an up and down month, but May was Blackburn’s time to shine. He started five games, won them all, and recorded an ERA of 2.68 during the month. When the calendar flipped to June, the evil Blackburn reappeared, though. This time, he stayed for two months. From June 1 through July 25th, Blackburn pitched 45 innings and allowed 47 earned runs, good for a 9.40 ERA. He lost his slot in the starting rotation. Even more ominous: his season ERA skyrocketed from a respectable 4.28 to a purely evil 6.66. He was literally pitching like a man possessed!
But again, the evil passed. Blackburn spent a short stint at AAA to clear his head and work on his mechanics. He returned in August, and in his last 9 outings of the year he went 3-4 with an ERA of 3.16.
In a turbulent season for Twins pitchers, Blackburn has been among the few steady starters. On June 22, in a tough luck loss to the Giants and Ryan Vogelsong, Blackburn lowered his EAR to 3.15. In three starts since then, however, 0pposing hitters have been collecting extra base hits like they’re going out of style. In his last three starts, Blackburn has given up at least five runs each time, leading to a monstrous 12.15 ERA in 13.1 innings pitched.
It looks like the demons might be back.
Blackburn has never been an overpowering pitcher, by any stretch of the imagination. According to Fangraphs, his career average fastball speed is just 90.6 miles per hour. As a result, it is critical for him to spot pitches in the proper locations and for his sinker to stay low in the zone. If his sinker doesn’t sink…
Well, you don’t even have to understand baseball to know that’s a bad thing.
Some inconsistency should be expected from a pitcher like Blackburn, a contact pitcher who relies on his fielders to make the vast majority of his outs. And the defense behind him has certainly changed a lot during his career, with a completely different middle infield combination each season. But it is easy for any observer to notice that when Blackburn is struggling, opponents hit the ball very hard. That cannot be blamed on infielders.
Pitching coach Rick Anderson has an interesting task here. His job is to find out what happens each summer that causes Blackburn to suddenly lose control of his pitches. The simple explanation is that it could be related to some sort of fatigue problem. This would explain why Blackburn’s command recovered last September after a little downtime. It may also be a psychological issue.
Whatever it is, let’s hope the Twins can solve it. Mr. Hyde needs to take the summer off this year.