Joe Blanton was all kinds of “meh” as a starting pitcher.
In 1,553 career innings a starter – his role during the first nine years of his career – Blanton produced a 4.47 ERA and 4.20 FIP. He was a back-of-the-rotation arm. He soaked up innings. His starts were not going to spike ratings or attendance or win expectancy.
But in 2015 he found himself in the Kansas City bullpen and something strange occurred: he became one of the game’s most effective relievers despite an atypical tools profile.
Blanton was effective in the Royals’ bullpen, and when he was traded to the Pirates at the trade deadline, he was again successful in a relief role. During the following offseason, he signed a modest one-year, $4 million deal with the Dodgers and was, again, successful pitching out of the bullpen.
Since 2015, Blanton has appeared in 107 games, all as a reliever. In that time he ranks 11th in ERA (2.29) among all relievers, 24th in FIP (3.02) and 26th in K-BB% (19.1 points).
So what’s strange — in an era during which we hear more interest and talk about teams relying more heavily on their bullpens, when we saw inspired bullpen usage by the Cleveland Indians and other clubs in the postseason — what’s strange is Blanton remains available in free agency.
Back in August, FanGraphs’ Neil Weinberg officially labeled Blanton’s move to the bullpen as a success and it’s difficult to disagree with the assertion.
As Weinberg noted, a secret to Blanton’s successful transformation has been a slight drop in his arm slot, and a significant increase in his slider usage.
Since 2015, Blanton ranks 20th among all pitchers (minimum 100 innings) with regard to slider usage (35.4%). He threw sliders on 43% of his pitch offerings last season, roughly three times his career average. Last season, Blanton produced a whiff rate on his slider of 40.5%, ranking 40th among all relief pitchers, superior to that of a similar soft-tossing, slider-heavy contemporary in Sergio Romo (35.9%), and better than A.J. Ramos (36.5%) and Darren O’Day (33.3%).
Blanton has also located the pitch consistently against left-handed hitters…
And right-handed ones…
Blanton’s slider is apparently legit.
it was one of the few pitches with which Gary Sanchez struggled in the second half last season. Consider these three sliders from a September 12 Sanchez at-bat versus Blanton.
Blanton’s slider velocity is above average, and while it lacks elite horizontal or vertical break, notice the location in GIFs above. Blanton can bury his slider with the best of them.
Perhaps teams are skeptical because Blanton is not lighting up PITCHf/x and Statcast readings out of the bullpen. A common narrative regarding rotation-to-bullpens success stories is that Pitcher X moves to the bullpen, enjoys a velocity increase, sheds an ineffective pitch, and voila, a useful arm is found.
While Blanton’s pitch mix, arm angle, and location execution has changed in relief, Blanton’s story does not include a dramatic velocity increase. His fastball averaged a modest 91 mph last season. Perhaps there’s a velocity bias against relievers like Blanton, Romo, and Koji Uehara.
You could understand if teams were skeptical of Blanton last year, after one year’s work in the bullpen, after his time with miracle-worker Ray Searage. But Blanton repeated the success away from the Pirates and their pitching coach last season.
Even if you don’t buy into Blanton as a setup-type, impact reliever, he would certainly seem to fit a middle-inning, or multi-inning relief role. He pitched 2.0 or more innings of relief on 15 occasions in 2015. He did it seven times last year for Los Angeles, even while working in a more traditional setup role.
Blanton has proven he’s anything but average as a relief option the last two seasons. So in an industry that is always looking for pitching, in an industry that seems more open-minded about bullpen usage than ever — as Dave Cameron wrote Monday in regard to the Marlins — why is Blanton still looking for work with the opening of spring-training camps less than a month away?
Blanton is still available and he might be one of the better bargains remaining in free agency.