July 22, 2010

Twins dump Nick Blackburn and MLB-worst 6.53 ERA from rotation

Because of his low strikeout rates and mediocre ground-ball percentages Nick Blackburn was always walking a very fine line between success and failure, which is why I criticized the Twins for signing him to a four-year, $14 million deal this offseason when they already controlled him through 2013 and could have instead gone year-to-year with his contract status. Of course, not even I expected the wheels to come flying off this quickly or this completely.

Blackburn began the year by going 6-1 with his usual 4.28 ERA through the end of May despite just 17 strikeouts in 61 innings, but in nine starts since June 1 he's 1-6 with a 9.88 ERA, .378 opponents' batting average, and nearly as many walks (14) and home runs (11) as strikeouts (18) in 41 innings. His latest sub par outing Sunday pushed his ERA to an MLB-worst 6.53 and after 18 starts the Twins decided to demote Blackburn to the bullpen yesterday.

Brian Duensing will replace Blackburn in the rotation after posting a 1.67 ERA in 43 innings as a reliever. He's yet to throw even 50 pitches in a game this year, so Duensing will likely be on a pitch count for his first matchup tomorrow night against the Orioles, but he was a starter throughout his minor-league career and pitched well in nine starts down the stretch last year. With that said, those expecting Duensing to be a rotation savior are going to be disappointed.

His secondary numbers haven't been particularly great despite working mostly as a one-inning reliever facing more left-handed hitters than he'll see as a starter. So while his 2.98 ERA in 127 career innings looks great, his 4.59 xFIP is considerably less promising. His minor-league track record is also underwhelming, with a 4.00 ERA, .275 opponents' batting average, and just 207 strikeouts in 331 innings as a starter at Triple-A.

Of course, it won't take much for Duensing to be a huge improvement over Blackburn and he's certainly capable of putting together a solid half-season as a mid-rotation starter. Making the switch was absolutely the right move, but expectations for Duensing need to be held in check and everyone involved should be happy if he posts an ERA under 4.50. As for Blackburn, in the short term he'll get some low-leverage work as a mop-up man and long reliever.

In the long term it's tougher to say because the contract really complicates things. Blackburn is owed $3.75 million next year, $4.75 million in 2012, and $5.5 million in 2013, so simply cutting him loose won't be an option and the Twins have unnecessarily forced themselves into being heavily invested in getting him turned around. I'm not optimistic about those odds, but just as Blackburn wasn't as good as he looked in 2008/2009 he's not as bad as he's looked this year.

He is, however, a 28-year-old with the third-lowest strikeout rate among all active pitchers, a lifetime .302 opponents' batting average, and a 5.02 career xFIP. For comparison, Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey have career xFIPs of 4.23 and 4.33, so there should be zero doubt that the Twins booted the correct guy from the rotation. Blackburn bucked the odds and out-pitched his secondary stats for two years, but you can only walk that tightrope for so long without falling.

  • sports pr guy

    Not sure what to say other than he was very very bad. Hopefully he can figure it out.

  • Alex

    This is the primary example of why it’s so frustrating that the Twins are so aggressively anti-sabermetrics. Anyone who knows anything about advanced statistics was dismissing Blackburn for two years and trashed the contract in spring training. But because the Twins front office literally knows less about these things than random idiots on the internet (like me), they gave him $14 million dollars as a reward for back-to-back years with a mid-rotation ERA and W-L record. Ultimately it’s impossible to stay angry at the Twins front office for long given what they’ve done for us over the past decade, but things like this are so frustrating because they are SO PREVENTABLE! Gleeman, would you work for the Twins for free? Maybe if they were told it would cost them literally nothing in overhead, they would bring someone in house who could at least give another perspective on these things. As things stand now, between the Twins front office, Aaron Gleeman, and me, the only party that DOESN’T know what xFIP is is the one that makes the personnel decisions and writes the checks.

  • A.J.

    Great article — excellent analysis. Hopefully Blackburn isn’t a reincarnation of Joe Mays/Carlos Silva. Although maybe one day he will get his sinker ball back and have a solid year like Silva seems to be doing!

  • John P.

    You called it a demotion to the bullpen like everyone does. But is it really a demotion if no pay cut is involved? I’d call it a lateral move.

  • Ted k

    “Although maybe one day he will get his sinker ball back and have a solid year” Blackie is actually getting more GBs this year than he has at any point in his mlb career. The problem is he isnt actually a good sinkerball pitcher. Certainly not good enough to overcome missing so few bats. I think blackies great sinker was invented to explain how a guy that couldnt strike anyone out was capable of the success he was having. I was personally kind of hoping blackie would have have a year like this. When the twins gave him his current deal the reaction was generally very positive. I crushed the deal and called blackie lucky. Thats when people would tell me i was stupid and that its not luck if you do if for 2 years and that the sample size was too big for it to be luck ect ect. One terrible half year later and everyone is killing the guy.

  • Ted k

    “But is it really a demotion if no pay cut is involved? I’d call it a lateral move.” We’d have to pay him the same if he was in the minors since he signed his new deal.

  • Lurgman

    I have a real problem with assuming fans believe Duensing will be a rotation savior. I don’t think most knowledgable Twins fans are hoping for him to be a savior. But if he is a guy who can pitch 6+ innings and give up 3 runs, that is leaps and bounds above Blackburn. This is a team that has shown they can score runs. If the starters just quit digging early holes, the team will be fine. The Twins don’t need a staff of ace pitchers – Liriano and Pavano will do nicely (just look at Liriano’s peripherals, for God’s sake they are better than David Price) – they need to round out a starting rotation with competent pitchers.

  • Chris

    Now let’s remove Butera and return Morales and release Mahay and bring up another right-handed bat.

  • chris

    what has everyone vs Mahay???

    Blackburn is a fine guy..but this contract situation is very very bad for the twins….half the money for him would’ve been enough…and even 7 million would be much for a player like him….twins really overpaid here…

  • Neil

    The Blackburn contract makes me think of Glen Taylor, back when he gave a crap, throwing all that money at Troy Hudson: If he’s our guy, he just must be good.

    Obviously the Twins have tossed some cash in the past, but only in 1-2 year increments. It will at least be interesting to see if Bill Smith learns anything from this episode.

    Gordo and Gladden were talking yesterday about how Duensing going to the rotation is going to force Mijares and Mahay into more critical situations. That, obviously, could be a problem. But I guess we’ll see if Mahay is anything more than Dennys Reyes (post-2006).

  • corybante

    How do people feel about keeping Blackburn in the bullpen instead of Manship? I would think Jeff would be more useful.

  • Mike Green

    The Allan Anderson story retold with slight variation. Nicely done, Aaron.

  • Not David

    Neither Manship or Blackburn are going to be all that useful out of the pen given Gardy’s inability to make appropriate use of a long-man.

  • By Jiminy

    I wonder how long Blackburn will stay in the bullpen. Three or four bad outings will probably get him sent to AAA.

    I don’t really understand why they’re waiting. They’re deeply invested in his future; they don’t trust him to face big league batters right now; seems like they should send him to AAA, focus on regaining his form, in hopes of bringing him back once they think he can get people out again. Maybe they could find something to work on down there that would at least bring him back to okay.

  • jo

    which is why I criticized the Twins for signing him

    Hell yeah! Way to go Gleeman!

  • Son of Shane Mack

    The Allan Anderson story retold with slight variation. Nicely done, Aaron.

    Wow. That’s a name that brings me back. I always wondered what the heck happened with him. Of course, I was a kid back then, sabermetrics wasn’t well known, the internet was in text and for research types, and besides – I didn’t like math.

  • Sam

    Blackburn actually bucked the trend for 4 years, including his minor league success that got him ranked as our top prospect.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/statss.aspx?playerid=4270&position=P
    His K rate and BB rate have been consistent since 2006 (ups and downs, but no obvious trend). His ’06 numbers are skewed I believe, by a big split between 1st half and second half. I think that, since mid year ’06, his ERA has consistently been below his FIP (xFIP only available for MLB). However, his FIP rose when he went to the MLB because his HR/9 rose.

    I would love to see someone due the regression to get the credibility factor, but what percentage of people who’s ERA<FIP for 3.5 years (by about .5) are able to keep it up.

    Anyway, his FIP and xFIP are basically driven by his HR rate. That is what got so much worse this year. HR/FB of 14% is about 50% higher than his prior MLB average. I think it's fair to expect regression going forward, back to FIP/xFIP more similar to his prior numbers. Whether you expect his ERA to match his prior ERA or his prior FIP/xFIP (which at 4.5 wouldn't be bad), depends on the credibility stat I put above.

    Anyway, demoting him makes sense. Someone needs to figure out what's wrong, and fix it, so the HRs stop, and the K rate goes back above 4, and BB below 2. It may not be this year, but I think it's fair to put up an a priori expectation for next year in the range of 150-200 IP with ERA around 4.5.

    I.e. don't dump him completely.

  • matt

    This is really a indicative of a problem that permeates the organization. Drafting these soft-tossing, strike throwers who pitch to contact will one day give you a rotation that resembles the current Twins rotation. None of the mediocre 3 have “shave the corner” control or very good secondary pitches ala Maddux, Glavine or other dominant control-type pitchers. So this is what you get, 60% of your rotation with ERA’s surrounding 5. Really check out the minor league rosters, there aren’t many, if any, dominant power pitchers in the Twins organization. Brad Radke has become the measuring stick for the pitching in this organization. Learn to love it…

  • Scott

    I still cant fathom why they would replace manship with alexi.

    oh wait, yes i can. alexi is a utility infeilder, which gardy loves to collect and will henceforth play into his plan of leaving no room (in his mind anyways) for Valencia, especially once tolbert is activated from the DL. way to go gardy, way to go.

  • James M.

    Sam: I don’t have time to do a big study. But I can tell you, out of 40 pitchers with an ERA at least 0.25 below their FIP in 2008, only 10 made the list again in 2009, including Blackburn.

  • Sam

    James – that’s pretty to know.

  • Sam

    *Pretty good

  • Neil
  • Kent Rath

    I think they should send Blackburn, Slowey and Baker all down and bring up some new blood. They have done nothing but hurt the Twins and they need a wake up call. There are plenty of good pitchers in their farm system that would love to get a chance to prove themselves and maybe help the team.

    Kent Rath

  • mike wants wins

    Why is Casilla even on the 40 man still? Brutal. 2.5 weeks in Peru, and I come back and all they’ve done is regress and not make a trade. I still think Smith is waaaaay over his head here. I still think their refusal to look at stats and their implications is a killer. And, Mauer has to be great for them to win, and he’s not this year. What a waste. And, don’t get me started on Cuddeyer….