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Blackburn Sent to AAA: Don’t hate the player, hate the game.


The Minnesota Twins have outrighted Nick Blackburn to Rochester, meaning that he is no longer on the team’s 40 man roster and thus unlikely to return to Minnesota this season. Though Blackburn is signed through 2013, this development also casts doubt on whether he’ll pitch for the Twins next year. This is definitely the correct move for the team.

Computer savvy Twins fans reacted the way you’d expect if the internet had existed the day Hitler died. “It’s a glorious day in Twins Territory!” was one such comment on the Star Tribune’s story. Many Twitter users expressed a similar degree of enthusiasm. It’s hard to blame any Twins fan for applauding this move. As I noted a few weeks ago, Blackburn’s stats reveal him to be one of the worst pitchers in Major League Baseball over the last few seasons, and this year his 7.39 ERA ties him with Jim Deshaies for the worst single-season ERA by any Twins starter (minimum 90 innings pitched).

Still, I cannot bring myself to share in the joy. The Twins made the right baseball move; if anything, they should have cut ties with Blackburn two months (or two years) ago. But I’m also saddened to see Blackburn dropped because I respect what he accomplished as a player.

Nick Blackburn was never blessed with extraordinary pitching talent, at least not compared to other Major Leaguers. His fastball was never particularly fast, and his secondary pitches have never been deceptive enough to make hitters swing and miss. He has relied on sheer hard work and tenacity his whole career. On draft day in 2001, the Twins waited until the 29th Round to select Blackburn – exactly 28 rounds after Joe Mauer got the call. 856 other men were drafted before Blackburn, but unlike the vast majority of them, Blackburn made it to the Show. It took him six years, but he got there.

Once he did, Blackburn actually put together a couple of solid seasons. Between 2008 and 2009, Blackburn was an important anchor in the Twins’ starting rotation. He won 11 games each year and posted a 4.05 and a 4.03 ERA, which was slightly above the league average. His FIP numbers were 4.40 and 4.37 respectively, hardly Cy Young material, but far better than you’d expect from a 29th round pick.

And who can forget the AL Central tie-breaker in ’08? To use the Twins vernacular, Blackburn “battled his tail off” against the White Sox. He was essentially a rookie pitcher thrust into the biggest game of his life, and the only run he allowed was a solo shot to guaranteed future Hall of Famer Jim Thome. Already by that time, Blackburn had contributed to the team far more than the Twins could ever have expected from him. An afterthought draft pick became a solid #4 starter with flashes of dominance.

Of course, after his solid 2009 campaign, things went downhill. Even though Blackburn had all of his arbitration years remaining, the Twins decided to offer him a long term contract. We shouldn’t be upset that Blackburn signed that deal (only a fool would have turned it down); instead, we should hold it against the Twins for making that foolish business decision. If Blackburn hadn’t been signed to such a lengthy deal, perhaps the Twins would have released him long ago instead of cruelly continuing to put him on the mound every fifth day to give up more hits.

In short, let’s not be mad at Blackburn. Let’s instead celebrate his early successes and blame the Twins for allowing three years of horror to obscure them.