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The pitcher who is teaming up with Houston Astros’ Justin Verlander to lead the American League in WAR is probably not who you think.
It’s not New York Yankees sensation Nestor Cortes who sees Verlander’s 1.38 ERA and bumps him to a 1.35 ERA. Nor is it Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Kevin Gausman, whose relatively modest 2.40 ERA comes with a comical 54-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Rather, the only AL hurler to have been as valuable as Verlander in 2022 is… Paul Blackburn?
That’s his name, all right. I’d say “don’t wear it,” but probably only the most die-hard Oakland Athletics fans are guilty of repeating Blackburn’s name this season. And judging by the team’s attendance, those are the only fans showing up to see the A’s.
Nevertheless, the 28-year-old right-hander presents himself as a real No. 1 starter. In seven starts, he’s gone 4-0 and has logged a 1.67 ERA in 37.2 innings. Although he has only knocked out 29 batters, he has otherwise dominated the three true results, allowing only five walks and one home run.
Coming all of this from a man whose previous five seasons in the majors has produced 30 total appearances and a 5.74 ERA, you probably have questions. So please let me guess what they are and try to answer them.
Where did this guy come from?
Let’s put it this way: Without Blackburn, Mike Montgomery might never have been a Chicago Cub and thus the guy who recorded the 2016 World Series Finals.
The Cubs originally drafted Blackburn from Heritage High School in Brentwood, Calif. with the 56th pick in the 2012 draft. He went first overall in 2016, largely due to his above-average curveball and ability to throw strikes Baseball America as prospect #19 of the organization. He then continued to grow his stock with a 3.17 ERA in 18 starts through July for his Double-A subsidiary.
At that point, the Cubs decided to redeem Blackburn and sent him to the Seattle Mariners in a four-player deal that put Montgomery back on the North Side. The rest, as they say, has been history for 108 years.
Just months later, in November, the Mariners brought Blackburn to the A’s for Danny Valencia. Baseball America only considered him the team’s 23rd best prospect going the following spring, but he made an impression on Bob Melvin. The former A-Skipper told reporters it “wouldn’t surprise me at all” if Blackburn, then 23, made his debut in 2017.
This event actually took place on July 1, 2017 and marked the start of a successful 10-start run that brought the Bay Area home field to a 3.22 ERA over 58.2 innings. Best of all was when he made it to the Mariners in his second start with 7.2 innings of one-run ball.
“Your first start is sort of an out-of-body experience, and then your second start is about performance,” Melvin said. “And certainly against the team he was with, who he was traded from, who he gets to play against… really, really good performance from him.”
Unfortunately, Blackburn’s fun run ended in a literal bad break when he was hit in the right wrist by a comebacker on August 22. That was his last appearance this season.
That’s how it went in 2018, when he pulled a forearm during spring training and only had his first assignment in June. Though his arm recovered, he was barely able to maintain his productivity from ’17 when he was lit for a 7.16 ERA in six appearances with Oakland.
Subsequently, Blackburn made just five appearances in the majors in 2019 and 2020, and the A’s even designated him for action in February 2021. He remained with the organization but only reappeared in the majors, making nine starts again being knocked out for a 5.87 ERA replacing Chris Bassitt after the veteran right-hander was hit by a line drive in August.
Blackburn seemed slated for a similar role as a contingency option in 2022, but that changed when the A’s opened two rotation slots with trades from Bassitt and Sean Manaea.
Blackburn might have earned one of these the old-fashioned way, but that’s not what happened. He served nine runs with 13 hits and five walks in 8.2 innings in the spring, opening the season only in Oakland’s rotation because injuries sidelined James Kaprieelian and Brent Honeywell.
So how does he do it?
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To understand how Blackburn went from being lucky enough to be on the A rotation to competing with Verlander, Cortes and Gausman for the AL Cy Young Award, one has to understand the craft of pitching.
At no point during his prospect days was he billed as a prototypical major league ace, and despite his ace-like numbers, he still resembles none. He sits averaging just 91.7 mph even after improving his fastball speed. His breath rate, on the other hand, is barely above average in the 52nd percentile.
One thing Blackburn has always had is a great arsenal of pitches. And even more so in 2022 after adding a slider with well above average vertical and horizontal movement, expanding his repertoire to six different offerings:
Image courtesy of Baseball Savant
“I think it’s just going to give me more right-handed swing-and-miss,” Blackburn said of his new slider.
So far, so good. The 26 sliders Blackburn threw to right-handed batters resulted in six swings and misses and just one hit on four balls in the game.
Blackburn’s curve, his best throw even in the worst of times, keeps opposing batsmen for one hit in 22 at-bats. Along with his slider, it can be said that his ability to spin the ball is a key factor in his success.
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Paul Blackburn, Nasty 3 Breaking Ball K (with two swords). ⚔️⚔️ pic.twitter.com/GifEUnXHRU
Blackburn has also spoken about throwing his curveball, slider, and his other secondary pitches with a “fastball mentality.” With a certain aggressiveness, then, which is particularly evident in the way he throws first shots 64.8 percent of the time, the best of his career, even though he leads his sinker only 35.2 percent of the 0-0 counts.
Blackburn also just throws more strikes the old fashioned way. At 47.0 percent, his shot rate in the hitting zone is higher than ever. It’s not that easy to gauge the quality of his command, but he’s clearly adept at working on the outside of the zone against left- and right-handed hitters:
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All in all, Blackburn’s approach to pitching contains a lot. The effect is not dissimilar if the A’s had simply kept Bassitt, who similarly thrives on a deep repertoire and unpredictable sequencing and positional patterns, and changed his name to Paul Blackburn.
“He shuffles all his pitches, throws places, keeps the guys guessing, keeps everyone off balance, pitches to contact, is efficient,” A’s catcher Sean Murphy said of Blackburn. “All the good things that can be said about a pitcher. ”
But can he keep it up?
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If this question can be more accurately understood as “Can Blackburn maintain an ERA in the 1.00s?” then the answer is a pretty blatant no.
Still, the prognosis doesn’t seem to stand for a regression back to the utter ineffectiveness that defined Blackburn’s last four seasons.
His expected ERA of 2.94 may be a fair bit higher than his actual ERA, but he’s still good for 14th among all pitchers who put at least 100 balls in play. At No. 15 is none other than Bassitt. In 12th place, just ahead of Fellow A’s hurler Frankie Montas, is reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes.
This speaks to how benign the majority of balls in the Blackburn playoff were. Just over half (50.9 percent) were ground balls. His 21 flyballs average a distance of just 303 feet, a full 10 feet below the league-wide average of 313 feet.
If anything, these numbers underestimate the difficulty batsmen had driving the ball against Blackburn. At launch angle, his average mark of 3.2 degrees is behind only Framber Valdez and Logan Webb. There is also virtually no difference between his actual (1.0) and expected (0.9) legal home runs.
It also helps Blackburn that Mark Kotsay, A’s manager, doesn’t hire him to write checks his arm can’t cash. He’s maxed out on 88 pitches and gotten a third trip through the lineup in just five of his starts.
How long will he stay an A?
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Unfortunately for A’s fans, there’s no escaping that question when the team produces a new star.
If you’re not counting Marcus Semien despite his value-crushing walk year in 2020, you’ll have to go all the way back to Barry Zito in 2006 to find the last time the A’s actually held on to a star player until free agency called his number . Since then, many others – up to and including Bassitt, Manaea, Matt Olson and Matt Chapman last winter – have left town through trades during their arbitration years.
With him under the club’s control until 2025, that won’t necessarily be Blackburn’s fate any time soon. But at the same time, anyone who says it can be completely ruled out has too much faith in the organization’s commitment to building a competitive team.
The A’s deliberately bet on competition when they held their sellout after Major League Baseball’s lockout was lifted in March, so it’s no big surprise they’re in the AL West basement with a 16-23 record. Once Montas is inevitably traded, Oakland’s timeline for returning to competitive figures becomes even longer.
It’s conceivable the A’s will be a contender again before Blackburn’s club control is lifted, but the complication is that he will be eligible for arbitration for the first time next year. This will result in his salary being measured in millions instead of thousands. If they want to keep their payroll below the $50 million mark, the A’s might not find it palatable.
So it wouldn’t be surprising if the A’s bought Blackburn this winter or even this summer. A manageable late bloomer on a team that’s not going anywhere fast, he has a profile similar to that of Doug Fister when the Mariners traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 2011.
No matter when it happens, a Blackburn trade would give A’s fans another reason to get fed up with the organization. The silver lining for everyone else, though, is that something like this would garner more exposure for a pitcher who deserves it.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.