The other day someone asked me what happened to Joe Blanton this year. He’s gotten torched this year after being a pretty solid pitcher for the Phillies a year ago, and his demise has been a big reason why the Phillies currently find themselves in third place in the NL East. The big factor in Blanton’s new found suckitude has been a dramatic drop-off in his strikeout rate, which has fallen from 7.51 K/9 a year ago to 4.98 K/9 this year.
However, perhaps the question shouldn’t be what’s changed about Blanton this year, as much as it should be what changed with Blanton last year? Here’s his career K/9 in graph form:
When seen over the course of his career, his current strikeout rate seems pretty normal. It’s last year’s performance that looks like the massive outlier, and rather than the product of a breakout, it looks more like just a fluke. How did a pitch-to-contact guy with no outpitch suddenly post an above-average strikeout rate?
Certainly, the change in leagues had something to do with it. Blanton faced #9 hitters 78 times last season, and he racked up 26 strikeouts in those at-bats. Blanton took full advantage of getting to face the opposing pitcher several times a game, and was able to pad his strikeout total against guys who don’t hit for a living. But that doesn’t begin to explain all of the change in his strikeout rate.
His velocity didn’t jump. He didn’t add a new pitch. From a big picture standpoint, not much changed. So how was Blanton able to get so many strikeouts last year, and why has he crashed back to earth this year?
Pitch selection looks like one possible suspect. With the caveat that we’re dealing with really small samples here, the glaring change in his performance from last year to this year is how well he’s done on the 2-2 count. A year ago, he threw 125 pitches when the count was even at two balls and two strikes and managed a whopping 44 strikeouts (35 percent), holding opposing batters to a .189/.194/.320 line against him.
This year, he’s thrown 27 pitches in a 2-2 count, but only racked up 5 strikeouts (19 percent), and opposing hitters are knocking him around at a .444/.444/.852 clip on that pitch. The 2-2 count is a very good one for pitchers to be in, as National League hitters are putting up an average .191/.197/.305 line in that situation this year, but Blanton has not been able to take advantage and put hitters away.
In looking at his pitch selection, we can see that he’s curiously decided to throw mostly fastballs on this count, despite it being a strikeout situation. On 2-2 this year, he’s throwing 60 percent fastballs, 6 percent sliders, 15 percent curves, and 19 percent change-ups. Last year on a 2-2 count, he threw 48 percent fastballs, 23 percent sliders, 13 percent curves, and 16 percent change-ups.
Essentially, on 2-2 counts this year, he has replaced the slider – a-swing-and-miss pitch – with the fastball. Hitters have been appreciative, and instead of going down flailing at a breaking ball, they’re driving his fastball with authority.
Maybe he has a good reason for why he’s decided to start throwing 89 MPH meatballs in a pitcher’s count, but regardless, it’s not working, and perhaps he should consider trying something else.