Another Year with Joe Blanton, Great Reliever

The price of relief pitching is on the rise. Baseball die hards are currently having a fierce debate about reliever valuation, but it’s relatively clear that teams are willing to pony up for quality back of the bullpen arms. The recent deals for Ken Giles, Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Will Smith demonstrate as much. Clubs want good relievers (who can blame them!) and they are allocating more resources toward their acquisition.

I’m not an economist, but I imagine teams would rather acquire a high-quality reliever who isn’t expensive than one who is. Unfortunately, market forces tend to get in the way and you wind up trading lots of prospects for a couple seasons of reliever help. Unless you’re the Dodgers. If you’re the Dodgers, you take a gamble on Joe Blanton’s 2015 season and get a setup man at utility-infielder prices.

I recognize that last sentence might be a lot to handle if you followed baseball closely through 2014 but somehow missed last year. “Joe Blanton is a reliever?” you might ask. “Joe Blanton is good?” might come next. Let’s get caught up quickly.

After basically retiring, Blanton hitched his wagon to the Royals last season and wound up being traded to the Pirates before the deadline. I’ll let a past version of myself sum it up:

Blanton was on his way out of baseball. Where this story gets interesting, however, is when you observe his 2015 season. It’s composed of 41 solid innings for Kansas City (96 ERA-, 90 FIP-) and then 34 amazing ones (42 ERA-, 56 FIP-) in Pittsburgh, mostly as a reliever. Blanton had never been a full-time reliever during his career, getting only the stray appearance out of the pen. Ninety-two percent of his MLB games had been as a starter entering 2015. This year, he started four games, but then he provided 32 relief appearances. And he was amazing.

Now it’s not exactly shocking that the Royals and Pirates had a hand in this given the Royals’ reputation with starter-to-reliever moves and Pirates’ employment of Ray Searage. If this were some nondescript starting pitcher who added 2 mph to his fastball, it would barely register because it’s become so commonplace. What is surprising is that Blanton didn’t take the normal path to reliever excellence. He was an 89-91 guy for his entire career and that’s exactly how hard he threw out of the pen.

Blanton wasn’t good from 2010 to 2013, barely pitched in the minors in 2014, added no velocity, and then somehow became an awesome reliever in 2015 at age 34. He achieved this by lowering his arm slot, throwing a ton more sliders, and becoming death on right-handed batters. It was a remarkable comeback for a pitcher who was on his way out of baseball, but it was only 76 innings.

When the offseason came, Blanton was a free agent. His age worked against him, but he was coming off a season in which he’d a recorded an ERA, FIP, and xFIP all nearly 30% better than league average. Even if he wasn’t likely to nab a four-year deal, his platform season was surely good enough to attract a nice contract in a reliever-happy market, right? It would seem that way, but Blanton didn’t actually find a home until mid-January, receiving just $4 million for one year of work with the Dodgers.

We don’t know if Blanton had bigger offers that he rejected because he wanted to hit the market again after 2016, but it is relatively surprising that no one beat the Dodgers’ $4 million commitment on a one-year deal. The obvious explanation is that teams weren’t comfortable betting that 2015 Blanton was the real Blanton. If they felt confident about that, he’d have taken home something like three years, $24 million. Instead, the league balked, remembering the five previous years over the most recent one.

To put it mildly, whoops. Blanton isn’t necessarily better in 2016 than he was in 2015, but he is 65.2 innings into the season and looks very much like the guy we saw in 2015. Let’s review.

Whether you’re into ERA or FIP, he’s been great.

Screenshot 2016-08-25 at 2.20.33 PM

And he’s still striking batters out at an impressive rate, even for 2016.

Screenshot 2016-08-25 at 2.21.10 PM

He’s still relying on the slider, although now he’s throwing a lot more curves along with it.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (5)

And his arm slot remains much lower than during his days as a starter:

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He’s still dominating right-handed hitters:

Joe Blanton vs. RHH
Season TBF wOBA HR/9 K% BB%
2005 395 0.324 1.46 15.2 % 8.6 %
2006 466 0.347 0.85 13.5 % 6.7 %
2007 498 0.282 1.01 16.7 % 3.2 %
2008 430 0.352 0.94 13.7 % 8.8 %
2009 449 0.341 1.54 19.6 % 5.8 %
2010 398 0.349 1.29 16.6 % 3.5 %
2011 107 0.381 1.13 15.9 % 5.6 %
2012 400 0.306 1.53 22.0 % 2.8 %
2013 276 0.418 2.43 15.9 % 4.7 %
2015 161 0.239 0.62 30.4 % 3.1%
2016 171 0.221 0.60 25.2 % 4.7%

But he’s also had more success against lefties this year (in a much smaller sample), perhaps due to the increased curveball usage:

Joe Blanton vs. LHH
Season TBF wOBA HR/9 K% BB%
2005 440 0.283 0.66 12.7 % 7.5 %
2006 390 0.348 0.71 11.3 % 6.9 %
2007 452 0.313 0.17 12.6 % 5.3 %
2008 425 0.311 1.06 12.2 % 6.6 %
2009 388 0.318 1.20 19.3 % 8.5 %
2010 367 0.339 1.49 18.5 % 7.9 %
2011 73 0.341 1.04 24.7 % 4.1 %
2012 406 0.343 1.19 19.2 % 5.7 %
2013 335 0.362 1.60 19.1 % 6.3 %
2015 148 0.330 1.10 20.3 % 7.4 %
2016 82 0.226 0.89 25.6 % 15.9 %

Overall, Blanton has a 65 ERA- and 77 FIP- in over 140 innings since the start of 2015. He’s recorded a strikeout rate of over 25% and a walk rate below 7%. Among relievers with 100-plus innings since the start of 2015 (as a reliever), Blanton is 29th in strikeout rate and 27th in walk rate. He’s been a top-30 reliever for two years (11th in ERA-, 21st FIP-).

Now granted, his BABIP is an impossibly low .205 this year and he’s giving up far fewer home runs than you might expect for someone with his fly-ball rate, but the fact that he remains this good for a second year in a row is enough to convince me that he’s absolutely a bona fide top reliever. It gets tricky because he’s 35 and a good Joe Blanton is going to face aging issues, even if he will face them more effectively than a bad Joe Blanton.

It will be fascinating to see how teams view Blanton this winter after back-to-back years of great reliever performance at age 34-35. He’s been the Dodgers’ third best reliever by FIP-WAR and second by RA9-WAR, and while he didn’t make the conversion at a young age, Blanton’s success in relief has very little to do with velocity. He might break down with age, but he’s doing this without high-octane fastballs.

I’m not that fond of the “a picture is worth 1,000″ words” cliche, but this post is about 1,000 words long and it can be summed up like this:

Screenshot 2016-08-25 at 2.49.47 PM

Two years in, I’m ready to call the Joe Blanton Bullpen Experiment a success.





Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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Dock Ellis
5 years ago

Might as well let him DH in the World Series this year too.