The Rockies Could Really Use Joe Blanton

Two weeks have elapsed since I last wrote about the Rockies, so I hope enough time has passed to allow me to return to the subject matter.

As we know, Colorado has experimented with a number of approaches to pitching at Coors Field, from sinker-heavy staffs to expensive free agents to four-man rotations. Nothing, it seems, has worked. Back in January, I wrote about how the Rockies ought to be a center of pitching innovation when I advocated for the club to break away from the traditional five-man rotation.

While battling fatigue is one significant issue tied to pitching at altitude, another is, of course, the movement of pitches in the thin air. One kind FanGraphs reader directed my attention to a Dan Rozenson study on pitch effectiveness at Coors Field.

Wrote Rozenson:

There is strong evidence that the slider performs in absolute and comparative terms better than the curveball in Coors Field. Part of this can probably be attributed to the fact that sliders deviate from the “gyroball” trajectory of a pitch thrown in a vacuum the least of the major pitch types. Sinking fastballs also have a sharp drop-off in performance at Coors, and there is some evidence that using a cut fastball would be a good alternative.

Rockies management would be wise to learn from failed pitching experiments past. Their system ought to emphasize pitchers developing an arsenal of pitches that could be used effectively at home. This most obviously means encouraging their pitchers to throw sliders instead of curveballs as their main breaking ball, although further study might be able to illuminate what other pitches offer a comparative advantage in Denver.

While every type of pitch is less effective at higher altitude, the slider loses the least of its effectiveness among all pitch types. I went back and looked at the last five years of data and, curiously, I found only one season during which the Rockies had really committed to slider usage.

Rockies’ Slider Usage, 2012-16
Year Slider % MLB Rank ERA- MLB Rank
2016 15.6% 16 100 17
2015 13.8% 20 110 25
2014 22.5% 1 113 29
2013 19.1% 7 101 16
2012 18.2% 9 113 26

Rozenson’s research, and the last five years of pitching linear weights data, suggest the Rockies should be committing to the slider and to pitchers that throw sliders.

In looking at the most common non-fastballs – sliders, curveballs, and changeups – only three times in the last five seasons has one of those pitch types produced a positive linear weight for the Rockies in a season. Each time it was the slider.

Linear Weights of Rockies’ Breaking & Offspeed Pitches
Year wSL MLB Rank wCU MLB Rank wCH MLB Rank
2016 27.7 12 -15 29 -5.8 22
2015 -15.6 30 -15.2 28 -28.3 30
2014 7.7 21 -14.9 28 -2.1 20
2013 28 8 -2.9 17 -36 30
2012 -10.5 30 -22.4 29 -34.5 30

It’s more evidence in support of the case for a slider-first approach. The Rockies as a staff should perhaps become the Rich Hills of sliders.

The good news for the Rockies is Jon Gray throws a heckuva slider. And it’s the slider that might allow Gray to become one of the few Rockies starting pitchers to enjoy success at Coors Field. It’s Gray’s slider that, in 2017, could help the Rockies become a dark-horse candidate for an NL Wild Card spot.

Gray threw his slider at a 26.9% rate last season, and it generated a positive linear weight of 13.9 runs above average. His fastball, which averaged 95 mph, produced a -9.6 linear weight. Among pitchers who threw at least 200 sliders last season, Gray’s slider produced the 11th-best whiff rate per swing (43.1%) and a 3.1 GB/FB ratio, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards.

It’s a good pitch, maybe a great pitch. For reference, see the final strikeout of his 16-K, shutout effort at Coors last season:

But if the Rockies wanted to implement more of a slider-based approach in 2017, one issue is that, other than Gray, the only pitcher returning from last season with a plus slider (according to linear weights, which isn’t a perfect tool) is potential closer Adam Ottavino.

The Rockies have added slider-heavy bullpen arms in Mike Dunn and Greg Holland, though Holland is coming off Tommy John surgery. While the Rockies’ overall slider usage has declined the last two seasons, the Holland and Dunn signings follow a slider-fastball bullpen template that’s Mike Petriello noted the Rockies have focused on in recent years.

And one of the better slider-heavy relievers remains available.

For a club like the Rockies that’s always in need of pitching — and which, in particular, might benefit from a plus slider — the availability of Joe Blanton oughtn’t be ignored. Despite having been no average Joe as a reliever, Blanton still has yet to sign with a club — even as of pitchers and catchers report and Valentine’s Day passes.

Here’s some of what I wrote last month regarding Blanton:

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).

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%).

Consider these three sliders from a September 12 Gary Sanchez at-bat versus Blanton, which offer visual evidence of Blanton’s slider effectiveness. Blanton, as you can see in the following footage and as I discussed last month, is one of the best in the game at locating the slider down and away versus righties.

Strike one…

Strike two…

Strike three…

Blanton, the reliever, appeared in five games at Coors Field last season. He allowed two runs in four innings.

With Blanton’s success as a reliever the last two years, it’s somewhat remarkable – to me, at least – that he remains available in mid-February. Just about any team could carve out a role for Blanton, in a sport that should pitch more and more from its bullpens, but there might not be a better fit for the slider-heavy Blanton than the slider-needy Rockies and their home of slider-favorable Coors Field.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Come on already, Rays. Eovaldi isn’t gonna solve your bullpen blues. Bring Blanton in from the cold.