So, last night, the Phillies traded top prospect Adrian Cardenas, solid prospect Josh Outman, and long shot prospect Matthew Spencer to Oakland in return for Joe Blanton. Cardenas is the best second base prospect in the game and, in my view, Philadelphia’s best minor league talent, so in parting with him and the potentially useful Outman, the cost to acquire Blanton was fairly high. Is he going to push them over the top and help them hold off the Mets down the stretch?
Let’s take a look at Blanton’s skills in graph form.
His strengths and weaknesses are pretty clear – he has well above average command, pounding the strike zone but not missing bats. He’s a classic pitch-to-contact starter with a very slight groundball tendency, whose approach is to put the ball in play and let hitters get themselves out. There’s a lot of pitch to contact starters out there, but most of them haven’t experienced the same kind of run prevention success that Blanton has. The main reason can be best seen through the following chart:
Blanton’s allowed less than 1.0 HR/9 in each of the last three years, including a 0.63 HR/9 that ranked 11th lowest in baseball last year. The guys ahead of him were almost universally extreme groundball pitchers (except Chris Young, who pitches in Petco Park), which is intuitive – its hard to hit a groundball over the wall. But since Blanton isn’t really an extreme groundball guy, his home run prevention over the last few years is a bit surprising. In fact, his HR/FB rates are shockingly low.
Oakland Coliseum is a tough place to hit the ball out of the park, so part of these low rates are explainable as a park effect, but not to this extreme. Over the last two and a half years, Blanton has consistently beaten his projection for what we’d expect his HR/FB rate to be, even when we include the park factor into the equation.
If you think this is a sustainable skill, you’re probably pretty bullish on his ability to rebound to his 2007 form and return to above average starter status, especially with the move to the weaker NL. After all, his 4.11 FIP suggests that his 4.96 ERA is mostly bad luck, and Philly may have bought low on the 27-year-old.
However, there’s a pretty good mountain of evidence that shows that pitchers have little control over their HF/FB rate, and it varies significantly on a year to year basis. If you think (as I do) that Blanton’s low HR/FB rates the last couple of years were more of an outlier than a skill he’s going to take to Philadelphia with him, then you’re a bit more bearish on his future. In general, pitchers whose performance is built on a low HR/FB rate don’t have the same consistent success that pitchers who control the strike zone, and a move from Oakland to Philadelphia could exacerbate the regression in HR/FB rate that Blanton likely has coming.
For the price they paid, the Phillies should have gotten a borderline all-star, but from my perspective, Blanton’s more of a back-end innings eater who isn’t likely to perform in the future as well as he has in the past. This looks like the kind of trade the Phillies fans will be looking back on with frustration for years to come.
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