Sunday, April 13, 2008

On Nick Blackburn and Playing Possum

"For a baseball fan to fail to see that strikeout rates are closely tied to career length, I would argue, is very much like a basketball fan failing to notice that basketball players tend to be tall."

- Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

For the first Dugout Splinters of the year, I named ten Twins players I am excited to watch develop this year. And now, two weeks into the season, they almost all rank behind a guy who's pitching tonight. And he wasn't anywhere on the list. And the reason why I'm excited has to do with James' quote above.

The reason Nick Blackburn didn't make that first list was also because of that quote. Blackburn simply didn't show the good in the minors, where "goods" is described as a high strikeout rate. The Twins other young pitchers intrigued me for exactly the opposite reason. But Blackburn wasn't like the others:

A K/9IP (strikeout rate) of 6 is about average in the majors, and it's a little higher in the minors. All the other young studs had some very good strikeout rates - some obscenely good. This is why I was so optimistic about the Twins young rotation developing into something special as the year went along. And, obviously, so far, so good.

But Blackburn seemed likely to be the guy who didn't stick around for long. It was certainly possible that he would have a few good starts, and maybe even stick around for a year or so. Old timers like me will remember Twins starter Allen "Little Franky" Anderson, who won the ERA championship in 1988 in his first full year in the majors. He also struck out just 83 batters in 202.1 innings. He had another good year in 1989, lost 18 games in 1990, and played his last major league game in 1991.

So it isn't surprising that Blackburn, who the coaching staff praises as a polished pitcher, is having early success. That happens even with low strikout pitchers. What's surprising is that so far, Blackburn hasn't been a low strikeout pitcher:

By comparison, Blackurns K/9IP last year in AAA-Rochester was 4.64. It's rare to see a pitcher's strikeout rate go up when they jump from AAA to the majors. It's virtually unheard of for a strikeout rate to jump this much.

Small sample size, you say? Well, obviously. But that's the first reason why this is so compelling to watch. Because if you're looking at a pitcher's early results, and you're going to pull one stat that is a decent indicator on whether that success will last, strikeout rate is usually it. For instance, if your closer is scuffling a bit and you notice that he's only struck out just two guys in his first nine innings, odds are it's because he's hiding an injury. Strikeout rate is a hard thing to fake.

But the second reason I'm compelled to watch is because of what I saw in his last start against the White Sox. Blackburn seemed to be striking out the most dangerous White Sox batters, almost as if he was truly pitching to contact for those hitters that were less likely to hurt him. And saving the Ks for the moments it meant the most.

In the first inning, that also meant striking players out exactly when he needed to. Three batters into that inning, the White Sox had one run in, no outs, and runners on first and second base. Blackburn struck out Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye consecutively before getting a ground ball to shortstop (from AJ Pierzynski) to end the inning.

The heart of the order was back up in the third inning, when Blackburn struck out Jim Thome and Konerko to start that inning. And in the fourth, he struck out Thome again to end another scoring threat.

What struck me about this was that I'm watching a guy who shouldn't be striking people out, and I'm wondering why his strikeout rate is shooting upward. And then he surprises me even more by recording those punchouts in critical moments against some of the opposing team's best hitters. And I can't help but wonder, can a guy really play possum through a six-year minor league career, and then flash the goods when his team, and his career, needs it the most?

I doubt it. But I damn well am going to watch it.


Nick N. said...

Blackburn is on a bit of a delayed learning curve because he didn't start pitching until high school, which might explain why he's seemingly just been figuring things out over the past year or so. Still, the rise in K-rate is both unusual and interesting, and it's certainly something I'll be following here early in the season.

It's worth noting that the White Sox would seem to have a pretty strikeout-prone lineup with Thome, Konerko, Swisher, Dye, etc. Baker had 7 K in five innings in the other game in that series.

John said...

Blackburn's strikeouts of Vlad Guerrero in his first game got me pretty excited. But his minor league numbers really are confounding given his stuff. How much could he have changed in one year? He sure doesn't look like a finesse guy out there. That high-80s cutter is a nasty pitch and his curve has huge break, though his location is sometimes off with it.

For what it's worth, Baseball America noted that Blackburn was told to work on his off-speed pitches in the Arizona Fall League, and in 22 innings he posted a 20/2 K/BB ratio. The AFL isn't the Bigs by any stretch, but given that Blackburn didn't strike out guys in AAA, I found it interesting he struck out so many guys in the AFL (~25% of those he faced).

TT said...

pull one stat that is a decent indicator on whether that success will last, strikeout rate is usually it.

I don't think that is true. You will find a lot of young studs who get a good percentage of their outs via strikeout and are unsuccessful. The key stat is how often they get batters out.

Old timers like me will remember Twins starter Allen "Little Franky" Anderson

But they might not have noticed that Anderson won the "ERA championship" while giving up a lot of hits and an enormous number of un-earned runs. His ERA was a tribute to the Twins poor defense.

They will also remember Anderson got injured. That had a lot more to do with his later failures than how many strikeouts he had. No matter how often he gets mis-used as an example of the failure of a low strikeout pitcher.

Blackburn's test is going to be when batters are seeing him a second and third time around. He won't be surprising batters any more.

Following Blackburn's progress is the sort of thing that will make this season interesting. The Twins have a lot of unknowns and some of the answers are bound to be exciting. Some are bound to be disappointing as well. And we won't really know which is which until the season is over.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

The White Sox might seem like a K-prone team, but so far, they are only middle of the pack in the AL. Blackburn also pitched against the Angels and they have even less strikeouts. This is why the Twins have plenty to be optimistic about on the pitching side for the future. You have the oft cited pitchers (Liriano, Baker, Slowey), but you also have ones that have been pretty good that get kind of overlooked (Blackburn, Humber, Mulvey, Duensing).

Slowey is another one to watch the K rate. As you showed, his rate was very good in the minors. He came up and it took a big drop (4.6) and he was suddenly labeled by "experts" as someone without an "out pitch." He was then sent down and told to work on off-speed stuff and then when he came back up, his K rate went up (8.5) and I think it went up even more in spring training, so hopefully that trend continues as well.

Anonymous said...

You start your post by lifting a line from Geek's post. Here's the full citation:

Because if you're looking at a pitcher's early results, and you're going to pull one stat that is a decent indicator on whether that success will last, strikeout rate is usually it.

The idea here is to forecast sustained success based on a small sample size of early success. Two things to note here:

1. Notwithstanding the James citation, in this passage Geek is not pointing to a relationship between all young pitchers with high strikeout rates and future success. He is pointing to a relationship between high K-rate pitchers who have experienced early success and future success.

2. He uses the word "decent" to characterize that latter relationship. The word decent implies, I think, that counterexamples are out there.

You allude to counterexamples as reason to question Geek's claim. And yet his claim allows for the existence of counterexamples. What's more, the counterexamples you cite -- young studs who get a good percentage of their outs via strikeout and are unsuccessful -- includes all young pitchers with high strikeout rates, whether they've experienced early success or not. Geek suggests that we apply his metric to the prospects of the former only.

TT said...

Geek suggests that we apply his metric to the prospects of the former only.

In which case, is there a single study that shows this to be true for pitchers who are successful against the first 52 batters they faced - which is what we have with Blackburn? I think Geek was making a much more general statement than that, which is why I challenged it.

But you are correct, the metric is how pitchers who are initially successful at the major league level with a low percentage of outs from strikeouts continue to be successful compared to pitchers who are initially successful with high percentage of outs by strikeout.

Is there a study that shows that to be the case? I doubt it. Certainly not when comparing pitchers after 2 games.

I doubt it is true in general and Allen Anderson is an example where it wasn't. Of course Anderson wasn't initially successful. He struck out 51 batters in 84.3 innings his first year in the major leagues. It was only after spending most of the next year in the minor leagues that he had major league success - with a much lower K rate.

John said...

TT, Hmm, Don't know exactly what I'm responding to, but I'll take a shot...

1) You're right that I was making a much more generall comment, but not necessarily the one I think you think I was making.

My point is that if one is going to analyze a very small subset of data like 2 starts, then one certainly can't count on something like ERA or wins/losses as any kind of indicator. But K/9 is a more likely indicator. Not for long term career success, but perhaps for K rate for the first year. My experience is that it's usually a better indicator of the type of year a person will have than most other metrics, again, give the limited data.

It might be interesting to look at last year's pitchers, their K rate after 3 games, and their K rate for the year and see what kind of correlation there is. I suspect it's fairly high.

2) I think we've talked about AA's injury before, but I don't remember the specifics and can't find anything about it. Do you? Depending on the specifics, it might be a bad example.

3) "The key stat is how often they get batters out." I actually wonder if that's true. I'll likely revisit this topic on Friday. James sites research that he did on the top 100 pitchers since WW2, and claims to have studied such things. But he doesn't specifically mentiond something like WHIP (or more precisely Out/batter faced.) That might be the case. Have you ever studied that?

by jiminy said...

I don't know if there's a pattern to the atypical pitchers who succeed with a low K rate, but one who comes to mind is Chien-Ming Wang. I know comparing Blackburn to Wang doesn't tell you anything about Blackburn, really; it's the epitome of small sample size. So call it a hypothesis: is it a good sign that they both throw a hard sinker? It seems logical that if you're not going to strike people out you should keep the ball on the ground and not walk anyone. Wang was a Cy Young runner up doing that. Blackburn may not be the next Wang, but Wang's success at least shows that what Blackburn's shooting for is possible, even if his K rate comes back to earth.

TT said...

John -

I agree on wins and ERA. But then the question is how do you measure "success". I think those two are really what we count and other stats are used based on how well they predict those two.

As for how many outs a pitcher gets, I wasn't really thinking of WHIP as a measure although that is what it measures in a backhanded way.

The truth is probably that after a couple games, you don't really know anything much. With new guys like Blackburn, you just have to wait and see how they do once the scouts have caught up to them.

BTW - It looks like Blackburn got zero strikeouts tonight. But he also gave up a bunch of hits.
James sites research that he did on the top 100 pitchers since WW2

I am not sure you can draw any conclusions about most pitchers from an elite sample. In fact, you are almost guaranteed to come to faulty conclusions based on that sample.

Jiminy -

I think there is some evidence that ground ball pitchers do better on balls in play than fly ball pitchers. That makes sense intuitively as well. So strikeouts will be less important for a ground ball pitcher.

RK said...

My whole experience watching the pitching this year has been one long, "Oh wait... who?" But I'm certainly intrigued

Eric said...

Blackburn's next goal should be getting Ks and outs in general while using fewer pitches. He will have a short career if he can't consistently go 6 innings.