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.