PITTSBURGH — Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington and his staff seem to know what they are doing when they acquire a pitcher.
When the Pirates’ acquired Joe Blanton from the Kansas City Royals for cash considerations at the trade deadline, it was viewed as a minimal impact move and a minor upgrade to the pitching staff.
Since Blanton has joined the Pirates, however, he’s been one of the most valuable relief pitchers in baseball. He ranks fourth in the Majors among relievers in Win Probability Added during the month August, a statistic that is used to measure how much a player contributes to their team’s odds of winning.
Blanton has been one of the more interesting stories in baseball, from failing to make a Major League roster in 2014, to walking away from the game at just 33-years old, then regaining the passion to play the game again during the 2014 off-season. Blanton has not only made a comeback to the Majors, but he may have found his niche as a reliever and most likely has extended his career beyond the 2015 season.
Rewinding back to the 2013 season, Blanton’s year was disastrous with the Angels in Los Angeles . He was far too easy to square up – he was inducing hard contact at a 36.8% rate, which ranked third worst in the Majors. His 1.97 HR/9 was the worst in baseball, and it led to an inflated 6.04 ERA. Blanton knew that with a fastball that often sits in the low-90s, something that is extremely unimpressive in this day and age, he would need to find a way to induce more mistake swings and swing-and-misses.
Blanton felt great when he showed up to Spring Training with the in Angels in 2014, but his struggles continued. That is when Angels’ Pitching Coach Mike Butcher recommended a mechanical adjustment. Blanton has been a guy who has pitched his entire career from the first base side of the pitcher’s mound. Butcher suggested that Blanton begin pitching from the third base side, with the thought that throwing from that angle would allow his repertoire of pitches to play better, as well as add more deception to his delivery.
It wasn’t a quick fix, and it took time for him to adjust. Unfortunately for Blanton, his poor 2013 season left him with little leeway, and the Angels released him after he surrendered 16 earned runs in the 20 innings he pitched during the 2014 Spring Training. After a short stint in the minors with Oakland, Blanton retired and never got a chance to consistently work on his adjusted delivery during 2014.
He didn’t throw the baseball again until neighbor Zach Duke contacted him, in need of a throwing partner for this past off-season. In the process, Blanton’s desire to pitch again was rejuvenated.
By recommendation of a few former teammates, Blanton traveled to Southern California in January to workout with former Major Leaguer and highly respected pitching guru Tom House. The 68-year old recognized that Blanton’s lead-shoulder had a tendency to “fly open” a little too early in his delivery, which was allowing opposing hitters to get a better read of what he was throwing.
“The [opposing] hitter was able to pick up my pitches little quicker, so I was losing some deception,” Blanton said. “Being a guy around 90 MPH, give or take a few, you need all of the deception you can get.”
While working with House to hold his front-side a bit longer through his delivery, Blanton decided that it would be beneficial to re-adopt the theory of pitching from the third-base side of the rubber, revisiting the adjustment from Spring Training of 2014. Once Blanton signed with the Kansas City Royals before the start of the 2015 season, the idea of pitching from the third-base side of the mound was heavily endorsed by the Royals’ coaching staff – an organization that is big on that philosophy of adding deception through a new angle.
As Blanton continued to adjust to his new mechanics, he began to see marked improvements in his four-seam fastball. However, the biggest improvement came with his slider. Blanton threw both a fastball-cutter and a slider with less velocity in previous seasons, but he’s elected to “scrap” the cutter, and shift to a slider with a higher velocity.
“I kind of met the two in the middle,” as Blanton described it. His newly acquired deception has enabled his slider to be as effective as it has ever been — opposing hitters are striking out at a career-best 42.9% rate against the offering, and have a batting average of .195, according to FanGraphs.
Pirates’ catcher Chris Stewart had the unique opportunity to face Blanton twice in July, as well as catch him since he’s joined the Pirates.
“I know when I faced him, he was tough to pick up,” Stewart said. “He hid the ball pretty good. The slider, you couldn’t really read out of his hand.”
Blanton’s deception has kept opposing hitters off-balance at the plate, and has induced some awkward looking swings this season.
Notice in the clip above from 2013 — Blanton is clearly standing on the first base side of the rubber as Chris Carter crushes a fastball on the outer half of the strike-zone.
Now notice that Blanton is positioned on the third base side of the mound this season. He executes nearly the same pitch, but this time New York’s Wilmer Flores doesn’t seem to recognize that a fastball is coming in until it’s too late.
Blanton’s fastball and slider have become a dynamic combination, and he continues to utilize a change-up, mostly to left-handers, along with sprinkling in a curveball.
Switching to the Bullpen
As a starter earlier this season, Blanton had a 5.30 ERA in 18.2 innings, while batters made soft contact at a rate of 12.1%.
In his 10-year career prior to 2015, Blanton had never pitched out of the bullpen on a consistent basis. However, since he made the move to the bullpen, he has seen his game rise to another level. In 36.1 innings in relief between the Royals and Pirates this season, Blanton has a 1.98 ERA and has struck out 39 batters. His soft contact rate has more than doubled to 24.5% since the transition.
On the year, Blanton’s 2.81 xFIP ranks 15th in baseball among 138 qualified relievers, with his ERA tied for 23rd. His WPA ranks 28th in that same group, and his “Clutch” rating of 0.80 is 12th among relievers.
It’s a small sample size, but it’s clear that Blanton has been more effective when only facing the batting order one to two times a night, when he can use his four-pitch arsenal all at once, rather than having to establish his fastball early in a start, or saving certain pitches for the third or fourth time through the batting order.
“You just come [at hitters] with everything, whereas a starter you might hold off on a pitch or kind of save a pitch if you need it later in the game. It’s a little more chess-matchy, where coming out of the bullpen, it’s more ‘here’s everything,’” said Blanton.
This is not the first time a career-long starting pitcher has transitioned to the bullpen and found massive success. Look no farther than relief pitchers Wade Davis in Kansas City and Zach Britton in Baltimore. Both struggled throughout their careers in a starting role, but since shifting to the bullpen they have become two of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game.
Blanton’s off-season throwing partner, Zach Duke, is another prime example, and a pitcher that Pirates’ fans are familiar with. He has posted a 2.91 ERA in 105 innings since he transitioned over to the bullpen full-time in 2014.
Now, comparing Blanton to Davis and Britton is a bit extreme, as they both saw significant velocity spikes in their transitions to the bullpen, whereas Blanton has not. It is not extreme, though, to say that Blanton’s repertoire of pitches have been more effective since his move to the bullpen, and with his ability to throw four pitches for strikes, it leaves a lot of different possibilities in the opposing hitters head.
“Only throwing once through the lineup, possibly a long relief appearance maybe you’re doing it twice, that helps,” Blanton said. “It adds an extra pitch or two in the hitter’s head if you’re only facing them one time.”
Blanton still hasn’t completely ruled out the desire to start again in the future, but he is enjoying throwing out of the bullpen for the time being. Based on the results so far, it looks like he may have found a new role that will extend his career for several years, just one year after he decided to retire.