Recent reports out of Ft. Myers are saying that Nick Blackburn is uninhibited after surgery to repair ligaments in his throwing forearm in 2011. The tall right hander is said to be gaining strength and is consistently working down in the zone as he ramps up for the start of Spring Training games, less than a week away. Strength and mechanics will be key for Blackburn in 2012 if he hopes to recapture the performance that has eluded him the past two seasons in Minnesota. In 2008 and 2009 Blackburn was successful posting an ERAs just over 4 (4.05, 4.03 respectively) and pitching above the Major League average posting an ERA+ above 100 both years. Banking on that success, and the number of innings Blackburn was pitching, the Twins signed him to a 4 year, $14 million dollar contract, that includes a team option for 2014 of $8,000,000. Unfortunately for the Twins, Blackburn has been unable to replicate his early success due in part to a string of minor injuries that Blackburn attempted to pitch through. The results were as expected and his ERA ballooned to 5.42 in a 2010 season that saw Blackburn optioned to AAA-Rochester to work through some issues. Blackburn came back in 2011 and carried a 3.16 ERA through the middle of June. But then the wheels started to fall off, and he posted a 6.59 ERA through August 21 when he was shut down after throwing just 1.1 innings in a start against the Yankees with discomfort in his forearm. While ERA is only part of the story when evaluating a pitcher, when an ERA doubles, it is more than just bad luck. Overcompensating for an injury, Blackburn was likely over throwing his pitches, flattening them out, leaving them up in the zone, and serving them up like meatballs to opposing hitters.
To be a valuable 4th or 5th starter in 2012, Blackburn will need to do little more than resemble and average Major League starter. To do that, he’ll need to post a FIP around 4.5 and decrease his BB/9 back below 2.0, where they were when he was successful in 2008/09. As a sinkerball pitchers, Blackburn thrives on ground balls and limiting walks, so while is K/9 remains awfully low (4.33K/9 for his career), if he’s keeping runners off base and inducing ground balls, his inability to strike hitters out will be minimized. Bill James projects Blackburn to throw just 162.0 innings, and the put up a FIP around 4.8, which is essentially what he did in 2010/11, which is a pretty safe prediction. However, looking at what Blackburn did in the first half last year, I think he will have a much better year in 2012 and remind Ron Gardenhire and Rick Anderson that he deserves to be more than just a filler at the bottom of the rotation. If Blackburn could replicate his early season numbers for a year ago for the entirety of 2012 he would set career highs in innings pitched (222), strike outs (115), and ERA (3.16), essentially turning him into Mark Buehrle. I do not believe Blackburn can reach that high for an entire season, he would eventually regress back toward his career norm, but I think he will perform more like the 2008/09 Blackburn than the 2010/11 Blackburn. I project him to pitch 195.0 innings, strike out 95 batters, walk just 45, and will benefit from better defense behind him, helping keep his ERA under 4 at 3.95. A season like that is likely to earn Blackburn in the neighborhood of 3.5 WAR, making him one of the best bargains on the team.
2012 is going to be a huge year for Nick Blackburn, and it will go a long way in helping the Twins be relevant in the 2012 AL Central pennant race.
Previous 2012 Projections can be found here.