This is an oversimplification, but to be a successful starting pitcher in the current era, you have to maintain some reasonable level of effectiveness for something like 25 batters per start. If you can’t pitch into the sixth and seventh innings with regularity, you aren’t going to remain a starting pitcher for very long. In the past that number was higher and in the future it might be lower, but if you don’t have the tools to remain effective for two or three turns through the order, you’re destined for the bullpen.
Pitching is multidimensional, which means that in order to pitch well enough to remain a starter, you need some combination of skills which push you across that threshold. Command, endurance, and stuff all play into the equation. Command is the ability to throw your pitches where you want them and endurance is the ability to maintain your command and stuff over multiple repetitions. Stuff is more complicated because it is partially a measure of individual pitch quality (defined in many ways) and the number of pitches you have at your disposal.
In other words, if you have average command, decent endurance, and the world’s greatest fastball, you can probably get by if your other pitches are only okay. But you can also get by without a great fastball if your command is elite and you have three solid pitches. There’s no single path to success.
Pitchers who flunk out of the rotation do so because they have a deficiency somewhere. It might have to do with their inability to maintain their stuff for 80-100 pitches or it might be because batters crush them on the second turn through the lineup. Pitching out of the bullpen allows you to hide from certain problems. If you have a good fastball and slider, but don’t have great endurance or a quality changeup, you’re probably going to struggle against opposite-handed hitters or fade as the game progresses. However, you would likely be a good fit for the bullpen because you could swoop in, face three or four same-handed batters, and then swoop out.
Not only does the bullpen allow you to survive with a shallower arsenal, but if you’re conditioned to throw 95 pitches and then asked to throw only 20, chances are you’ll have the capacity to expend more effort per pitch, leading to better results on each individual throw. This isn’t new information for who’s witnessed the number of successful starter-to-reliever transitions that have occurred in recent years.
It’s pretty simple. A bad starter moves to the pen, drops one of his lesser pitches, and starts throwing harder. He was mediocre over six innings but is very good for one. Look at Wade Davis. Check out Glen Perkins. Somehow Liam Hendriks is amazing. It’s whatever you call an epidemic that has happy results.
For those three examples, and many others, the uptick in velocity is critical. They don’t have the natural ability to throw extremely hard for 100 pitches per game like everyone who pitches for the Mets, but they can do it in short spurts. It’s not surprising when something like this happens. But sometimes a starter winds up in the bullpen without the velocity bump and has a transformation anyway.
Allow me to remind you about Joe Blanton. In the mid- to late-2000s, Blanton was a very solid arm for the Athletics and did well for himself in his early days with the Phillies. From 2010 to 2013, however, Blanton posted a -1.2 RA9-WAR and 4.2 fWAR. Those numbers suggest either a horrible pitcher or a below average one. It’s not entirely obvious which is the case, but in the latter half of his career Blanton has consistently been a high BABIP, high HR/FB% pitcher, so there’s probably some truth to what RA9 is selling. Don’t take either as gospel, but Blanton wasn’t great, had an awful 2013, and then only threw 10 minor league innings in 2014.
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.
Your brain probably wants to look at that graph of fourseam and sinker velocity and point to a “spike,” but you’re really just looking and an average velocity in the 90-91 range every year. Sure, it’s a little hard on average in 2012 and 2015 than the other years, but it’s not like he added 2 or 3 mph.
The key for Blanton was a changing his pitch mix. I don’t think I have to do a whole lot of analysis of the following graph:
Blanton throws a ton of sliders these days. Ten percentage points more than his slideriest year and 25 percentage points more than 2013. It’s his new favorite pitch. He probably has posters of slider grips on his bedroom wall. He’s a fastball/slider guy with an occasional change rather than when he was a fastball/changeup guy with an occasional breaking ball. And also, he dropped his arm slot big time:
The results are pretty straightforward. Blanton had a career high 25.6% strikeout rate and brought his HR/9 under 1.0 for the first time since 2007. Fewer batted balls and fewer home runs is a good way to live. Blanton’s transition has been especially deadly for righties. He dominated them in 2015:
|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 %|
Yet his performance against lefties was relatively normal:
|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 %|
It’s a very tidy narrative. Blanton was flunking out as a starter in his early 30s and found new life as a reliever thanks to a new approach on the mound. Rather than relying on his changeup, he shifted his focus to his slider, dropped his arm slot, and became a rough assignment for right-handed hitters. Lower arm-slot slider heavy pitchers are known for being tough on righties, so the whole thing meshes really well.
It’s an incredible thing to watch and it reminds you how remarkably gifted these athletes are. Blanton has been pitching one way for his entire life and, at 34, he remade himself completely and became a dynamite relief pitcher. At this point, I’m supposed to tell you if I think it’s going to last. That’s the standard for this kind of “player doing new thing article.” It’s hard to think it won’t last, at least to some extent. He’s probably wind up pitching a little worse in 2016 due to simple regression, but I don’t see any reason why would think Blanton couldn’t remain an effective reliever.
For the last several years, he’s been a fringy pitcher who seemed to have a knack for allowing hard contact. That isn’t the kind of thing that generally goes away out of nowhere, but this wasn’t an out of nowhere thing. I tend to think most subtle transitions won’t hold just due to how many of them are out there, but if you saw Blanton pitch for the first time in 2015, you would think he looks like a solid middle reliever who is nails against righties. The past data isn’t useless, but it’s less useful than it is for most guys because he’s doing something totally new. And unlike so many of these cases, it’s not about an uptick in velocity that might go away as he ages.
Blanton gives you hope that your team’s depressing prospect can have a second act as a reliever. Some guys are built for the bullpen and take to the lighter workload, but even pitchers who don’t fit that mold can have new life in the pen. It’s amazing what can happen if you’re willing to go back to the drawing board rather than doubling down on the things that haven’t worked, and the Pirates benefited from that big time in 2015. And Joe Blanton’s bank account will likely benefit from it in 2016 and beyond.
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.