At last Saturday’s home game against the Tampa Bay Rays the Twins reached the 2 million mark in attendance for the eighth consecutive season. In honor of the milestone, Nick Blackburn went out and tried to distribute home run balls to everyone at the game.
Blackburn’s recent stint in Rochester was supposed to be the fix. He tinkered with his mechanics and was going to return as the pitcher with better command and good movement on his pitches.
To his credit, he did improve his command. After walking 7% of total batters faced prior to the Rochester visit he has grinded that down to 2% since returning (3 walks in 131 match-ups). However, the movement simply has not been there and the sound of hot bat-on-ball action reverberating throughout Target Field during his starts confirms that he still struggling.
His two-seam fastball, the one with the supposed sink action, has been obliterated across the field. Opponents are hitting .357/.404/.609 with 13 home runs on that pitch, leading to a “value” of -21.4 runs above average – the worst in baseball among starters who have thrown a minimum of 80 innings. The unfortunate part is that Blackburn chooses to use this pitch 60% of the time.
The Twins sent Blackburn to Rochester to straighten some things out and regain confidence. During that time, Blackburn claimed he and pitching coach Bobby Cueller, discovered some differences between his earlier delivery and his contemporary mechanics. The pair worked on quieting his front side and getting his release point higher (which was a fairly similar recommendation found at Twins Daily). Retooled for success, Blackburn was recalled at the end of July but the results with Minnesota have been far from those he posted while in AAA.
While in Rochester, Blackburn was able to get his International League opponents to beat the ball into the ground 58% of the time over the course of 21 innings leading to a 2.57 ERA. Meanwhile, since returning to the Twins rotation, Blackburn has only enticed grounders on just 34% of balls in play in 30 innings.
As noted above, Blackburn’s release point was noticeably higher in 2009 and 2010. Pitch F/X charts shows that he was throwing more over the top versus the slight drop to three-quarter – even after his return from Rochester (as seen on the right, click to embiggen):
This has led to a flattening of his two-seam fastball and has given it less pitching arm side (PAS) run (or away from left handed batters and into right handed ones). It has also led to a 1013 OPS against the pitch.
Despite the near constant struggles each time out, the Twins still stand behind Blackburn for the future. After his most recent start in which he surrendered three home runs to the Tampa Bay Rays, manager Ron Gardenhire threw his support behind his veteran right-hander on 1500ESPN:
Not long after, general manager Terry Ryan confirmed that Blackburn will “be in the mix” for 2013, which, based on Blackburn’s performance the past two seasons, almost directly contradicting the “no-scholarships” policy the front office set forth during spring training - no matter what the contract status was.
The 2013 rotation is filled with plenty of vacancies so it is clear that the Twins would like to keep their options open, so giving Blackburn the opportunity to audition the rest of this year for a spot of next year does not hurt anything. But if he continues to issue home runs like jello shots at a frat party, his scholarship should most definitely be revoked.
Beginning tonight in Seattle, Blackburn needs to pitch like his scholarship is on the line.