Maybe the headline is a tad misleading; Joe Blanton-to-the-bullpen looked like something of a success story before he went to Pittsburgh and worked under the tutelage of pitching coach guru Ray Searage. But it was in Pittsburgh and under Searage that Blanton really took off, and without that time in Pittsburgh, Blanton may very well have been Just Another Reliever on the scrap heap, rather than a reliever who receives $4 million on a one-year deal to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It’s the year 2016, and we live in a world where Joe Blanton is getting guaranteed money to serve as a relief weapon for a contender. What a time to be alive.
Like many of you, I’ve long played fantasy baseball, and I’ve got a history with Mr. Blanton. Beware: I’m currently breaking rule No. 1 of playing fantasy baseball by talking about my fantasy baseball team. Nobody cares, I know, but I promise it won’t take long, and it’s related to the events at hand. My history with Joe Blanton goes like this: when I first started learning about sabermetrics, I learned about xFIP, and thought to myself, “Hey, this could be a useful tool for fantasy baseball.” One single stat, a predictive stat, that shows you potential under- and over-performers who have the peripherals to succeed; it was perfect!
Through the power of the almighty xFIP, I hastily, yet assertively, concluded that Joe Blanton was just unlucky. I concluded that Joe Blanton’s peripherals hinted at better results than he’d shown, and that Joe Blanton would provide Good Value. I drafted Joe Blanton, and then he was bad. Drats. Unlucky. Drafted him again, bad again. It goes on like this for several seasons until I couldn’t draft Joe Blanton anymore because he was no longer in the major leagues. At a certain point, I think I just became pot-committed and was determined to squeeze a good season out of Joe Blanton. It never came.
The point is this: Joe Blanton was always close. It always seemed like he might just be an adjustment away. An adjustment, or a lucky home run season. One of the two. He didn’t get a ton of strikeouts, but he got enough, he didn’t walk anybody, and he got a bunch of ground balls. That’s typically the beginning of a strong recipe for a successful pitcher, except Joe Blanton just gave up so many freaking dingers. Joe Blanton dingered himself right out of baseball, culminating in a 2013 in which he allowed 29 homers in 28 appearances. That was it for Blanton.
Or so we thought — until right around this time last year, when Blanton announced he was coming out of retirement, and we scoffed. Until Blanton received a minor league deal with the Royals, and we scoffed. Until Blanton found his way onto the major league roster and pitched effectively out of the bullpen, and we continued to scoff, but our hearts weren’t really in it, and as we scoffed we kind of looked around the proverbial room at one another, quizzically, as if to say, “Should we still be scoffing?” Until Blanton made his way to Pittsburgh and flat-out dominated, and we all just sat there, dumbfounded.
“Dominated” is not hyperbole, by the way. Do you realize how good Joe Blanton was in Pittsburgh? Allow me to remind you. Striking out nearly 30% of the batters you face is really good, especially when you only walk nine in 34 innings. Giving up only one home run over any extended stretch is really good, and getting grounders on nearly half your balls in play is also really good. A 1.54 ERA is really good. A 2.11 FIP? Really good.
For how often you hear of Ray Searage being a wizard, capable of fixing any flawed pitcher, consider this: during Searage’s time in Pittsburgh, only two relievers have posted a better ERA than Blanton’s from last season, given a low minimum of 30 innings pitched. Only two relievers have posted a better FIP. Of all the Ray Searage Success Stories, Blanton’s was successful as any.
Compare Blanton’s overall season performance with a few other relievers who similarly shocked the baseball world by turning in dominant relief seasons last year, and a $4 million commitment for Blanton seems like it could be a bargain:
Madson commanded $22 million over three years, Lowe got $11 million over two, and the A’s had to part with a quality major league arm to acquire Hendriks. As we see more and more pitchers come out of nowhere and turn themselves into dominant relievers, it seems the league is quick to buy into these newly established levels of performance as being for real.
Now, though, Blanton has left the place where he found so much success, and so it’s only natural to wonder whether anything will be lost. I started looking back through the past six seasons, covering Searage’s time in Pittsburgh, in search for similar rags-to-riches stories of guys who found sudden success under Searage only to take their talents elsewhere. Were they able to maintain a similar level established in Pittsburgh? It’s the same question Blue Jays fans are asking themselves of J.A. Happ.
A.J. Burnett‘s year away from Searage in 2014 for Philadelphia didn’t go so well, and his impressive return to Pittsburgh last year lends credence to the notion that he was at least somewhat reliant on Pittsburgh for success. On the other hand, Burnett’s lousy 2014 could at least partially be chalked up to an early-season sports hernia, and if you want to point to Burnett as a negative, you’ve got to point to Edinson Volquez as a positive. Volquez found something in Pittsburgh in 2014, and carried it over to Kansas City last year.
In the bullpen, there’s Jason Grilli, who had a career 4.66 ERA in 300-plus innings for the first nine years of his career, until coming to Pittsburgh in 2011 and establishing dominance, posting a 3.01 ERA and 2.97 FIP in 168 appearances between 2011 and June of 2014. Since leaving Pittsburgh, Grilli’s performance has held up, with a 3.44 ERA and 2.09 FIP over 77 appearances for the Angels and Braves. Justin Wilson could count as a plus for post-Searage success stories, a failed starter who ran a 2.99 ERA/3.45 FIP during two-plus seasons in Pittsburgh, and built on that success last year for the Yankees. Jose Veras had arguably the best year of his career for the Pirates in 2011 after a rocky start to his career, and remained moderately successful for a couple years after leaving, though you could make the case that Veras’ turnaround actually began in Miami the year prior to Pittsburgh. The Pirates squeezed 73.2 well above-average innings out of journeyman Vin Mazzaro in 2013, though he hasn’t quite maintained the same level of production since leaving — at least not in the majors. Due to age and injuries, respectively, we never got to see whether the reclamations of Chan Ho Park or Joel Hanrahan would stick.
We don’t have enough data to draw any real conclusions from this, but guys like Volquez, Wilson, and especially Grilli at least reveal that Searage success stories have gone on without him before. And anyway, what were the real adjustments that Blanton made? He picked up a couple miles per hour on his fastball, which is common practice for starters transitioning to the bullpen. He added a couple ticks on the heater, and when he got to Pittsburgh, he started throwing a slider with the same whiff rate as Sergio Romo and Ken Giles about three times as often as he ever had before. There wasn’t a major mechanical overhaul, or the introduction of a new pitch. Mostly, there were just a bunch more sliders, especially when Blanton got to two strikes, that made him death on righties, and if Blanton wants to continue throwing a bunch of sliders, well, he can.
Ah what the hell, maybe all of this is missing the real point: what’s $4 million to the Dodgers? The downside to this would be the equivalent of Stan Kasten or Magic Johnson accidentally dropping some pocket change in between the cracks of the couch cushions. The upside is a year of Good Joe Blanton, which is apparently now a thing.
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