This past March, the Minnesota Twins locked up Nick Blackburn with a four-year, $14 million contract. The deal covers the right-hander’s final pre-arbitration season in 2010, his three arbitration years and includes an $8 million option for 2014, Blackburn’s first season of free agent eligibility. Minnesota’s 29th round pick in the ’01 draft established himself as a solid rotation cog over the 2008 and 2009 seasons, using surgical command (1.81 BB/9) to compensate for a paltry punch out rate (4.4 K/9). His FIP over that period was 4.38, and his xFIP was 4.52. Blackburn managed 2.5 WAR in ’08, and improved to 3 WAR in ’09.
In 2010, CHONE (4.29 K/9, 1.86 BB/9, 4.42 FIP) and ZiPS (4.21 K/9, 2.06 BB/9, 4.65) expected more of the same from Blackburn. Instead, the 28-year-old has been battered for a 6.40 ERA in 97 innings. That’s the second-highest mark among qualified starters. Granted, Blackburn’s ERA does overstate the depth of his struggles — his BABIP is .324 (.314 career average), his rate of stranding base runners is 66.2% (69.9%) and his home run per fly ball rate is 14.8% (10.7%). But even so, his xFIP has ballooned to 5.14.
Blackburn’s already-low K rate has nosedived into Kirk Rueter-esque territory. He’s striking out just 3.15 batters per nine frames, by far the lowest among qualified starters (Aaron Cook is second, at 3.97 K/9). Nick’s swinging strike rate, 6.5% in 2008 and 5.4% in 2009, sits at an MLB-low 2.9% (Rodrigo Lopez is next, at four percent; the MLB average is 8-9%). His overall contact rate has spiked, from 86.7% in ’08 and 88.1% in ’09 to an MLB-high 93.7% this season (81% MLB average). In addition to missing even fewer bats, Blackburn has issued more walks — his BB/9 total is 2.51.
The scuffling Twins starter is still putting plenty of pitches within the strike zone:
When Blackburn does throw one off the plate, however, batters aren’t chasing near as much:
What has changed for Blackburn? Let’s take a look at his Pitch F/X data from TexasLeaguers.com over the past three seasons. First, here’s his pitch selection and performance in 2008 and 2009:
And now, 2010. I included a “difference” column for strike, swing, and whiff rate, comparing Blackburn’s performance in 2010 to 2008 and 2009. Blue indicates an increase compared to 2008-2009, while red indicates a decline:
Blackburn’s using his fastball and changeup more often, at the expense of cutters and curveballs. He throws a ton of strikes with the fastball, but the whiff rate is abysmal. Blackburn’s inducing fewer whiffs on all his pitches, and keep in mind those ’08-’09 rates were already extremely low. When he does go to his cutter, curve or change, Blackburn’s getting fewer strikes.
In 2008 and 2009, Blackburn was an average starter because of his fantastic walk rate. But, with more free passes and even fewer K’s, he has been a replacement-level arm in 2010. A guy like Blackburn has little margin for error — he’s a ground ball pitcher (48 GB% this season), but not a Tim Hudson-like worm burner, so any decline in his K/BB ratio is going to do serious harm. If Blackburn’s going to be a two to three win pitcher moving forward, he’s going to have to return his strikeout and walk rates to those 2008-2009 levels.