September 10, 2007

Who Is ... Nick Blackburn

Originally a 34th-round pick by the Devil Rays out of high school, Nick Blackburn chose junior college over signing and was later drafted by the Twins 28 rounds after Joe Mauer in 2001. A big, 6-foot-4 right-hander, Blackburn began his pro career at rookie-level Elizabethton in 2002, posting a 4.89 ERA and 62-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 66.2 innings spread over 13 starts. He moved up to low Single-A in 2003, posting a 4.86 ERA and 40-to-18 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 76 innings as a swingman.

The mediocre performance at low Single-A in 2003 earned him a trip back there to begin the next season. Blackburn pitched very well, with a 2.77 ERA and 66-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 84.1 innings split between starting and relieving, and earned a midseason promotion to high Single-A Fort Myers. Once there he struggled, posting a 6.27 ERA and 21-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio while serving up seven homers in 37.1 innings.

Even with the success during his second stint at low Single-A, Blackburn's combined numbers through three pro seasons were mediocre at best. In 264.1 total innings, he sported a 4.42 ERA and 189-to-69 strikeout-to-walk ratio while serving up 29 homers. For pitchers who lack overpowering raw stuff and don't miss many bats, the path to long-term success is through inducing ground balls, and allowing 29 homers in 264.1 innings against low-minors hitters suggests Blackburn struggled to do that.

However, for whatever reason that changed in 2005, when Blackburn spent time at Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A while serving up just seven homers in 157.2 total innings. He began the year back at Fort Myers, posting a 3.36 ERA and 55-to-16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 93.2 innings spread over 15 starts to earn a spot on the Florida State League All-Star team. Promoted to Double-A at midseason, Blackburn thrived while facing high-minors competition for the first time.

In seven starts at New Britain, he had a 1.84 ERA and 27-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio while allowing just one homer in 49 innings. Blackburn also made three starts at Triple-A when Rochester needed some rotation help, allowing 20 hits in 14 innings on the way to a 5.14 ERA. Despite making his way through three levels in 2005 and seeing some time in the Triple-A rotation near the end of the season, Blackburn spent all of 2006 back at Double-A.

Making 19 starts and 11 relief appearances, he posted a 4.42 ERA and 81-to-37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 132.1 innings. Those numbers are far from stellar and the continued deterioration of Blackburn's strikeout rate is noteworthy, but he once again kept the ball in the ballpark with just 11 long balls allowed. Despite turning 25 years old in February and already having spent one-plus seasons at Double-A, Blackburn found himself back at New Britain to begin this season.

With no room for him in the star-studded Rochester rotation, Blackburn bided his time by posting a 3.08 ERA and 18-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 38 innings at New Britain. Once Glen Perkins and Scott Baker made their way to Minnesota, Blackburn received a mid-May promotion to Triple-A and joined the rotation alongside Matt Garza and Kevin Slowey. After struggling some initially, Blackburn put together an amazing 44-inning scoreless streak that included going 5-0 with a 0.00 ERA in five June starts.

Within 39 scoreless June innings, Blackburn tossed back-to-back complete-game shutouts, held opponents to a .197 batting average, and posted a silly 21-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 44-inning scoreless streak ended when he allowed one run over seven innings on July 3, but it put Blackburn on the prospect map for the first time and he responded with a 2.70 ERA and 29-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 53.1 innings between July and August.

Blackburn finished the season with a 2.36 ERA, 75-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and .234 opponent's batting average in 148.2 innings between Double-A and Triple-A, including a 2.11 ERA in 110.2 innings at Rochester. The out-of-nowhere breakout season earned Blackburn a call-up to Minnesota, where he debuted with a scoreless inning of relief against the Indians on September 3. "He was under the radar," Rochester pitching coach Stu Cliburn said. "Now he's on the radar. I'd put my stamp on him."

While a certain segment of the Twins' fan base will no doubt see Blackburn's outstanding numbers this season and immediately assume that he's a top-notch prospect, that's actually far from the case. For one thing, the ability to miss bats is extremely important when projecting the future of a pitching prospect and Blackburn has never recorded many strikeouts. In fact, his strikeout rate has dipped with each step up the organizational ladder:

LVL        IP      SO     SO/9
RK 66.2 62 8.37
A- 160.1 106 5.95
A+ 131.0 76 5.22
AA 219.1 126 5.17
AAA 124.2 64 4.62

That pattern suggests that Blackburn will likely have a tough time striking out more than 4-5 batters per nine innings in the majors, which is the type of below-average strikeout rate that makes it difficult to have sustained success. With that said, if you're not going to miss many bats, the easiest way to have success is by throwing strikes, inducing ground balls, and keeping the ball in the ballpark. Fortunately for Blackburn, he's pretty good in all three of those areas, especially since 2005:

                 IP     SO/9     BB/9     HR/9
2002-2004 264.1 6.44 2.35 1.00
2005-2007 437.2 5.04 1.75 0.56

Since 2005, Blackburn's strikeouts have declined by 22 percent, but he's sliced his walks by 26 percent while cutting his homers by 44 percent. Over that span, he's walked 1.75 batters and allowed 0.56 homers per nine innings. For comparison, Brad Radke's career walk rate was 1.63 and the average MLB pitcher allows 1.02 homers per nine innings. In other words, he's handed out walks at the same rate that Radke did and has served up homers half as often as big-league pitchers as a whole.

Those numbers figure to change for the worse against major-league hitters, of course, but if you're going to lose one-fifth of your strikeouts on the way to the big leagues that's certainly the way to do it. While not quite an extreme ground-ball pitcher, Blackburn's best offering is a sinker and over the past two seasons he's had a ground ball-to-fly ball ratio of about 1.4-to-1. To put that in some context, the most extreme ground-ball pitcher in the league this season is Fausto Carmona at 3.5-to-1.

Twins who qualify as ground-ball pitchers this season are Carlos Silva (1.6), Juan Rincon (1.5), and Matt Garza (1.4). Rincon and Garza rely on good velocity and missing bats, so they're not similar to Blackburn, but Silva is the type of strike-throwing, ground ball-inducing pitcher that he'll try to be. "He's not a strikeout guy, although he gets his strikeouts," minor-league director Jim Rantz said. "He hits his spots, moves the ball around, and gets a lot of ground balls. He has good life on his fastball."

Already 25 years old, the best-case scenario is that Blackburn develops into a back-of-the-rotation starter. He'd likely be given a chance to do that in most organizations, but it'll be difficult to crack the Twins' rotation given their abundance of young starting pitchers both in the majors and throughout the minor-league system (which is part of why it took him so long just to get to Triple-A). Instead, a more likely scenario is that Blackburn slides into a middle-relief role beginning some time next season.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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