Before this season, there had been 25 seasons with a qualified starting pitcher who has had a strikeout-to-walk ratio greater than 6.00, and every single one of them has had an ERA- of 86 or better. To the likely surprise of many, Joe Blanton currently leads the NL with a 6.39 K/BB, and since Colby Lewis is out for the season and no other qualified starter has a mark better than 4.87, it is a pretty safe bet to expect Blanton to lead the majors in K/BB at seasons end. What makes Blanton’s season even more interesting is that he currently holds an ERA- of 114 and has allowed the most home runs in the NL.
The home run rate is not entirely unprecedented, as a pitcher with a K/BB ratio greater than 6.00 has led the league in home runs three other times in the history of baseball. Those three include Curt Schilling with 37 allowed in 2001 (I hear a lot of home runs were hit that year), Fergie Jenkins with 29 allowed in 1971, and Walter Johnson with 9 allowed in 1913. Schilling finished second in Cy Young balloting in his year while Jenkins won the award and Johnson won the MVP (there was no Cy Young award back then). Unless he goes on a tremendous tear to end the season and brings whatever team he is playing for to the playoffs, it is doubtful that Blanton even receives one Cy Young vote this year.
So how has Blanton posted the top K/BB ratio in the league and allowed this many runs, specifically of the over the fence variety? It starts with tremendous control of every pitch he throws. PITCHf/x has Blanton labeled with six different pitches this year, each of which has a strike percentage above 64.4%. To put that into perspective, Colby Lewis has an even better K/BB ratio than Blanton this year and even he has a pitch that is thrown for a strike less than 60% of the time in his curveball.
The high strike frequency has also been a reason for his high home run total, as he has allowed a home run with each of his pitches this season. The big issue Blanton has run into is leaving pitches out over the plate. Whether it be down the middle, high, or low, a majority of Blanton’s home runs have been on pitches that weren’t exactly close to the corner of the plate. Just by viewing the below chart, it seems that only five of the 20 home runs allowed were very low in the zone or on the corner of the plate while the rest were either close to the middle of the plate or up in the zone. Blanton has allowed 22 home runs, but Joe Lefkowitz’s PITCHf/x system has not recorded Blanton’s two most recent outings yet.
In looking particularly at Blanton’s pitch frequency by zone to right-handed batters, over 18% of his hard pitches have been in the dead middle of the zone. Blanton has not thrown hard pitches to any other part of the zone more than 13% of the time, so it is clear that he has had struggles keeping balls out of the center of the zone to right-handers. That issue correlates to his home run allowed total, as 14 of the 22 home runs he has allowed all year have been to right-handed hitters despite facing fewer right-handed batters than left-handers. According to Lefkowitz’s stats, right-handed hitters have a .524 ISO against pitches in the heart of the zone while left-handers have a still huge but less incredible .421 ISO against similar offerings.
In terms of home run distance, the average home run off of Blanton’s bat has traveled just under 400 feet. Six of the 22 home runs have been of the just enough variety, three coming in Philadelphia and one coming in also homer friendly Camden Yards. With Blanton a pending free agent, a team with a big stadium could opt to target him due to his stellar K/BB rate and their favorable park which should help limit his home runs.
Blanton may never be a tremendous starter, but in the right park and with continued control of all of his pitches, he could be a surprisingly valuable pitcher. While he has netted just one season with a WAR above 2.1 in the past six seasons, a team in an appropriate situation would be wise to target Blanton this offseason.