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Following the Twins 6-1 win on Saturday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays, manager Ron Gardenhire announced another member of his starting rotation. Gardy said that Nick Blackburn, who threw three no-hit innings against the Rays, was one of “his guys.” Francisco Liriano and Carl Pavano are givens. Gardy announced earlier in the week that Brian Duensing would be a starter as well. It would appear that the fifth spot in the rotation will be between Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker, although Gardy wants Kyle Gibson to also be given a shot to earn the role. One can only assume that he would say such a thing to potentially light a fire under the two right-handed veterans.
Many Twins fans, myself included, were calling for the removal of Blackburn from the starting rotation last year when he was really struggling. Rightfully, he was removed from the rotation shortly after the All Star break and sent to the minor leagues. He came back and pitched well down the stretch for the team. However, in the offseason, when discussion of which of the six starts should move to the bullpen, Blackburn was the easy choice for me. He had struggled in 2010, but in my mind, the right-hander’s cutter makes him a good bullpen option.
But maybe we are not giving Blackburn the appropriate due. The assumption was always that his extremely low strikeout rate would catch up with him. In 2008, he struck out just 4.5 batters per nine innings. That number dropped to 4.3 per nine in 2009. And as you would expect from watching last year, he missed even fewer bats in 2010 and struck out just 3.8 per nine innings. Check out the correlation between his declining strikeout rate and his hits per inning pitched.
But let’s even look at his 2010 season. It started out bad, and he left the team to go to a family emergency. When he came back, he was tremendous in May. In fact, he was runner-up for AL Pitcher of the Month. Then things went bad. Really bad in June and July. Everything he threw toward the plate was hit, and hit hard, and often hit a long way. Blackburn would be replaced in the rotation by mid-July by Brian Duensing. He went to the bullpen and soon after was sent back to Rochester. He pitched well there and soon he was back with the Twins. He then pitched at least seven innings in seven of his eight starts before the end of the season. He ended the season with 14 quality starts. It’s incredible how up and down his season was.
After identical 11-11 seasons in 2008 and 2009 with nearly identical 4.05 and 4.03 ERAs, it’s hard to believe that with the movement he gets on his pitches, the sinker and the cutter, that he can’t return to those types of numbers again in 2011. Equally important, Blackburn combined to throw 399 innings between those two seasons.
The comparisons to Carlos Silva can be scary. Silva, in fact, struck out even fewer than Blackburn has. He has certainly had his struggles since leaving the Twins. However, he was a terrific starter for the Twins three of his four seasons. His one bad year, his third with the team, he posted a 5.94 ERA. Silva was at 1.6 walks per nine innings in three of his four seasons, and we all remember the season where he walked just nine batters in 188 innings. Blackburn was at 1.8 walks per nine innings his first two seasons, and that number jumped to 2.2 last year. Of course, Silva struggled in his two seasons with the Mariners after they gave him 4 years and $48 million. He was better last year with the Cubs and of course is already in the news this year for he went after teammate Aramis Ramirez in the dugout after the Cubs 3B had an error in Silva’s first spring outing.
Nick Blackburn PREDICTIONS for 2011:
So, let’s make some predictions. What are your thoughts on Blackburn starting the season in the Twins rotation? Can he stay healthy and production and in the rotation the full season? And how well will he produce? Here are my predictions… what are yours?
- W-L (which of course are impossible to predict, but we will anyway): 16-11
- ERA: 4.27
- WHIP: 1.29
- IP: 212
- H: 222
- BB: 52
- K: 113 (4.8 K/9)
- K/9: 2.17
Too optimistic? Maybe. So, stick your neck out too and post your projection in the Comments section.