After the Oakland Athletics traded Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt to the San Diego Padres and New York Mets respectively, there was concern about their lack of pitching staff depth this offseason. Paul Blackburn was the first one to get the nod in the land of opportunity.
Although he was named one of the starting pitchers, nobody expected much of anything from him. His career ERA is 5.47 in 148 innings. He has been an underwhelming ground ball pitcher who hasn’t had an effective offering to stay in the major leagues.
Surprisingly, he has thrown at a different level in the last two games with a 1.80 ERA. Although it’s just two games, there seem to be some changes. Let’s see if his performance is sustainable.
Velocity and Pitch Mix Change
Paul Blackburn was never a hard thrower. His velocity has always been around the low 90s. In the last three years, his sinker velocity averaged 90 MPH. Despite the small sample size, he recorded 92.2 MPH in the last two games. It’s not a secret that velocity would go down as the season goes.
His uptick in velocity is certainly an encouraging sign, but obviously it cannot fully explain his better performance. What else has changed?
Interestingly, he has changed his repertoire every season. Sadly, none of these experiments worked for him until this year. In his last interview, he hinted about a changed grip on his curveball.
Although the curveball has been his best offering throughout his career, he hasn’t fully relied on it. Thankfully, this season he’s been throwing more curveballs, striking out six batters with the nasty curve in his last two games. His experiment to replace the cutter, (which was his second most thrown pitch last year) with the refined curveball has been working out great so far.
Attacking The Zone
His aggressiveness is also worth a mention, as he said he’s focusing on attacking up in the zone.
2021 Paul Blackburn’s Zone Breakdown
As you can see above, the number of pitches thrown up outside the zone has increased by nearly 5%. The whiff rate has also been noticeably better up in the zone.
The main reason hitters couldn’t square him up was his changeup improvement boosts the efficiency of the sinker. It explains why Oakland Athletics manager Mark Kotsay specifically mentioned his changeup usage after a 13-2 victory over Tampa Bay Rays last Monday. If he can continue to throw quality changeups to get lefties out, becoming a dependable contributor going forward should be assured.
There are a couple more key takeaways from his recent interview. First, he said that he made an adjustment to separate his fastball from other fastballs. His cutter was a culprit last season, with a 4.6% SwStr rate and a slugging percentage against of .511. Every hitter looked like Aaron Judge against his cutter. It would be interesting to see if he can mix cutters with sinkers to induce more groundballs.
Second, Blackburn said he worked on a new slider throughout the preseason but hasn’t shown it yet – reportedly because the Rays had so many lefties in the lineup that day. His slider was once his most thrown pitch in 2018, but he didn’t play much due to bad performance.
The bottom line is that his peripherals already look great, but he says he’s got more to show. Throwing more various pitches doesn’t always equate to better performance. We will see how he performs in the next game. He’s currently rostered in only 1% of Yahoo Fantasy Baseball Leagues.
Blackburn’s ability to induce ground balls has never been an issue for him. His career average groundball rate is 52.7%. It means he can be more efficient and go deeper than higher strikeout pitchers.
I believe his strikeout rate is decent enough for him to be the next Dallas Keuchel if he can keep doing what he has shown in the last two games. It’s still too early to say he’s different after just two games.
However, all of these convincing signs say that it’s not a bad idea to hop on the Blackburn hype train before it’s too late.