The Chicago White Sox punished Nick Blackburn Wednesday. They scored eight runs off the Twins’ starter, raising his season ERA to 7.99. It was just the latest in a DMV-sized line of bad starts by Blackburn, and it has to be enough to make a reasonable person wonder how long the Twins will continue to put him on the mound.
It is time for the Twins to part ways with Nick Blackburn.
To be clear, this is not an attack on Blackburn. In fact, the author wishes to acknowledge that Blackburn has had some impressive moments in his Major League career and made many positive contributions to the Twins. He certainly has achieved far more than one would expect from a 29th round draft pick. In 2008 and 2009, Blackburn was a reliable back of the rotation starter for the Twins. He surrendered a lot of hits but limited walks and home runs, and gave the Twins close to 200 innings each year. Early in 2009, he was the de facto staff ace, going 8-4 with a sparkling 3.04 ERA in the first half. And he pitched very well in some big games both years; Blackburn held the White Sox to just a Jim Thome solo homer in 2008’s Game 163, and he likewise held the potent Yankee lineup to just one run in Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS.
Unfortunately, the magic ran out for Blackburn after that. Despite the Twins moving into pitcher-friendly Target Field, Blackburn’s homer rate rose from 1.1 per nine innings in 2007-2009 to 1.4 HR/9 since. His walk rate has soared from 1.8/9 to 2.8/9 in the same span. For a pitcher dependent on copious groundball outs, the rise in homers and walks (with some help from the Twins’ declining defensive competence), has turned Blackburn into one of the worst pitchers in baseball. Among hurlers with 300 or more innings pitched since then, nobody has struck out fewer than Blackburn’s 4.18 batters per nine innings. His 1.56 WHIP in that span is worse than all pitchers except Charlie Morton and Brian Matusz, and only Rodrigo Lopez and Kevin Correa have managed to accumulate fewer than Blackburn’s 0.6 WAR. Perhaps worst of all, Blackburn has failed to exceed 161 innings in either season, which has severely hurt a pitching staff desperate for innings-eaters.
Add it all up, and it is clear that Blackburn does not have anything left to offer the Twins’ staff. This is a rebuilding team that needs to find younger arms and develop pitchers who can strike batters out. If Blackburn were an innings-eater who could ease strain on a young bullpen, then there might be a spot on the team for him during this time of transition. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and demotions to AAA (due to ineffectiveness) have prevented Blackburn from being such a workhorse.
The Twins might have released the right-hander long ago if not for his contract, which is one of Bill Smith’s more egregious crimes against baseball humanity. Prior to 2010, Smith presented Blackburn with a document that would continue to line Blackburn’s pockets until 2013 (plus an option year for 2014). Minnesota is paying him $4.75 million this year, and they’ll shell out $5.5 million next year. Long after it became apparent that Blackburn would never regain his 2008 level of effectiveness, the Twins continued to stick with him in the hopes that he would eventually do something on the mound to make that deal worthwhile. By now, it is obvious that such a thing will never happen.
If the Twins can somehow find a team willing to take on Blackburn’s contract, they should do so. But in the very likely event that does not happen, the Twins should simply release Blackburn and cut their losses. The $5.5 million figure will look bad ont he teamm’s balance sheet, but that cannot be helped. It would be far worse for the team’s bottom line if Blackburn continues to have awful outings on the mound; for example, how many potential ticket-buyers took one look at today’s disastrous game and closed their wallets?
It’s time to for Terry Ryan to shake Nick Blackburn’s hand, thank him for his service to the team, wish him luck, and send him on his way.