Twins Find Another Gem

The Minnesota Twins have been producing quality starting pitchers for years. From front of the rotation aces in Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano to useful innings eaters like Brad Radke, Carlos Silva, Scott Baker, and Boof Bonser, as well as a nifty trade chip in Matt Garza, there is seemingly never a shortage of quality pitchers taking the hill up in Minneapolis. It’s been a strength of the organization and the backbone on which a perennial division contender was built.

Well, it looks like they’ve done it once again. After losing Santana and Silva this winter, they handed a rotation spot to Nick Blackburn, a former 29th round selection in the 2001 draft who turned himself into a prospect through a volume of minor league success. As we can see from the pitch type data available here on FanGraphs, Blackburn’s stuff isn’t overpowering; he throws a 92 MPH fastball, an 88 MPH cut fastball (the pitches labeled as sliders are probably also cut fastballs), and a 75 MPH curveball, along with one or two change-ups per game. None of these pitches are a true knockout pitch, which is part of the reason his strikeout rates aren’t particularly high, and he wasn’t taken seriously as a prospect before 2007.

Through three starts, however, Blackburn is solidifying himself as a legitimate major league starting pitcher. Below are the two graphs that tell the story of his skillset and why it works.

Nick Blackburn’s BB/9

Nick Blackburn’s GB/FB/LD

Through his first 17 innings of 2008, Blackburn has shown impeccable command (less than two walks per nine innings) and pounded the zone with sinkers (60% groundball rate). While this isn’t as sexy as blowing hitters away with 96 MPH fastballs or a power curve, the combination of throwing strikes and getting ground balls is a proven winner. This is the Aaron Cook/Jake Westbrook path to success – pound the strike zone with pitches at the knees, don’t put anyone on base without making them swing, and let your infielders do the work.

Blackburn’s minor league data suggests that he probably won’t keep getting groundballs at quite this rate, and he’s unlikely to post an ERA below 4.00 this year, but he’s clearly showing that he’s got enough movement on his sinker and command of three pitches to keep hitters off balance and succeed as a pitch to contact starter. Chalk up another success story for the Twins pitching development machine.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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