How Joe Blanton Went From Being Retired to One of the Best MLB Relievers

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.

HOU_LAA_Carter_smashes_a_three_run_shot_in_the_ninth

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.

PIT_NYM_Blanton_strikes_out_six_in_three_innings

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.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 21, 2015 9:24 pm

    Well, so much for exacting revenge on Bumgarner….he’s making it look easy, with arm and bat. Marlon Byrd is paying dividends already.

    Locke has to pitch better than this – didn’t even give his team a chance. Very poor performance from him tonight.

  • “Here’s everything” is a description of pitching out of the bullpen which is beautiful in its simplicity.

  • I can’t remember where I read about Duke and Blanton’s involvement. It was only about a week ago. Pete went into more detail than the article I read, but I posted something about it on the PBC Asylum.

    Good story and I am glad we’re the recipient (so far).

  • Really, really well done Pete.

    Tim’s “Trust” article from last week should be linked to this and probably half of the other articles you guys write. I can’t remember a season with more laughably misplaced indignation for as long as I’ve been on Pirates interweb. Took all of about two weeks for those Worley vs Blanton complaints to look completely silly.

    I’ll gladly admit the Joe Blanton who sucked for a decade was too fresh in my mind to trust New Joe Blanton without seeing more, but I’m firmly a believer. Gives Hurdle the option of having a long man who can also be trusted in high leverage situations, which is a hell of a weapon this time of year.

    • I can’t believe that a team on pace to win 98 games would generate any negative reactions. And the Pirates have won more in the last 3 years than any team other than the Cardinals and Dodgers, plus they continue to have a top rated farm system. So I don’t understand the lack of trust in what they’re doing.

      • It’s odd to say the least given the clear difference in talent evaluation between the current and previous management groups. We’re all entitled to our complaints but the one message for my friend the other day during one of his many negative texts was “PLEASE try and enjoy this season. Please.” But to say the least they have earned the benefit of the doubt. The outrage over the Richard thing as if they were somehow caught off guard or someone forgot to mark their calendar to call him up by a certain date or he’s gone. Even the Happ trade. I was baffled. I tried to read up on it as much as I could cause I didn’t get it. Smelled a little of desperation but it’s obvious (at least pitchers) are clearly hand picked for certain reasons. Now I don’t know what they’ll get from Happ from this point on but he’s another perfect example of a calculated move that was most likely high analyzed and is not at least starting to pay some dividends.

        • This season reminds me of when the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2005. I bought in big time when they made that huge run in 2004, then was crushed when they lost to the Patriots. So I spent the following season doubting that they’d do anything, which as I recall, was justified since they were a Wild Card team. But even throughout the playoffs I kept preparing for them to lose, rather than enjoying it. Then when they finally won, I had missed the entire thing expecting them to lose again.

          I have a feeling there will be some people who will miss the ride, even if that ride ends before the World Series for the Pirates.

          • That was kind of my point to my friend. There’s a decent chance they don’t win the World Series this year. Then what? You’ve missed the joy of 90 some wins. Be upset come playoff time if they fall short like the last 2 years. For right now just enjoy the ride. Hell, now I even get less discouraged with the losses.

            • deacs: The Pirates were at least a year early in 2013 – they were supposed to do something possibly in 2014 and for sure by 2015. So, the Pirates have not fallen short in any way. Better than all but 2 other teams in the majors since 2013, and we still have one of the top rated farm systems in the majors.

              We still have some games to win to at least get us one home game in the post season – anything more than that is icing on the cake. This 2015 edition of the Bucs has been a study in character, and believing in one another.

              • By fall short I meant just falling short of winning the World Series. Wasn’t a shot at the team. Nothing against the 2013 or 2014 teams but I think this year they could actually win it. Possibly a defeatist attitude but the last two years I had that “playing with house money” type feeling. Just happy to make the playoffs. That’s what 20 bad years will do to you I guess.

      • Tim, the lack of trust is in many. They don’t understand a baseball player in his thirty’s has a great love of the game and can come back with desire and the physical attributes to play and win. That is why I love the game and the efforts of many who play the game.

      • I personally think this comes from a few members of the Pittsburgh media who are feeding these opinions simply being out of touch with the current state of Major League Baseball. You have guys who pass themselves off as Insiders pushing narratives that lead a reader to believe there are deep, systemic problems with Pirate management despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and high praise from baseball-focused outlets outside of the City.

        Why one would not only trust, but pay money to read a guy’s opinion who brags about not watching a single playoff game is beyond me. Same guy who’s been pushing the poor farm system narrative and questioning roster decisions since the Snider trade. Wrong time and time again, yet people continue lapping it up.

        The Pirates are a flawed ballclub, but this isn’t an internal competition. What matters is their quality *relative* to the league, and in an age of inherently flawed baseball they simply rise to the top by just about any measure.

        • And who could forget the various reports of how much the other players disliked Kang and all of his attention. Lazy, lazy journalism. The point about the Pirates being flawed was spot on. They are. At times their base running and defense is offensive at times. But just watch a 3 games series with two other decent teams. They all have flaws. Their aces struggle, they go into offensive slumps, their bullpens blow leads.

          • You really get a different perspective on this when you’re in the media. And that is a prime example. The Pirates were in camp for about two weeks. They had daily batting practice. It was routine. Players had been interacting with Kang constantly in the first weeks.

            Then a guy shows up one day, doesn’t see anyone introducing themselves to Kang (already done), and doesn’t see anyone freaking out over a batting practice home run (a daily occurrence). He asks a few loaded questions in a press conference to get the quotes he needs for the story that was probably already written, and the next day writes that Kang isn’t getting along with the team, after the writer was in camp for one day, and spent most of the day in the media room.

            I’m just speaking in general terms here, of course. I wouldn’t be talking about anyone specifically. 🙂

            • Yeah I won’t read that dude anymore, ever, after that. My brother does some college sports writing and my friend is a baseball writer. Both are appalled about just how lazy journalists have gotten for starters and what they are willing to do to get their sound bites. The Kang thing was big even here in Philly. People ran with it and I’m guessing that’s exactly what that “journalist” wanted to happen. I wonder if the players keep track of this stuff.

              • It’s a bit of a bummer to see that kind of approach get a strong and wide reaction. Especially when the boring, level-headed, honest approach that doesn’t generate fake controversy doesn’t travel nearly as far.

        • Good conversations here. I’ll add that it is so simple but almost all terrible baseball analysis (or any analysis) fails to ask compared to what.

          The information is out there, you don’t need to understand probabilistic regression or all the components of WAR, just have some basic level knowledge.

      • I too am amazed at the lack of excitement and rampant skepticism of many “fans”, I have a couple theories though:
        1-Most fans follow the Bucs very casually, and have no idea they don’t know what they don’t know. They consume much of their analysis from the local hacks that are more interested in page views and ratings than actually having a clue about baseball.
        2-Modern Baseball Theory takes a real commitment to learn. Many are not interested in putting the time and effort in. It’s very hard to give management credit if you have no idea why they are doing what they do.
        3-The average fan is still very cynical and bitter that Nutting “allowed” our team to set the all-time losing season record when he could have just spent some of his millions and bought a winning season before we owned that record. I have heard this from several smart but casual fans.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 21, 2015 1:28 pm

    I will be the first one to admit that I mocked this move when it was first announced, as I didn’t see anything in Blanton’s recent past that led me to believe that he could be consistently effective out of the bullpen. I was wrong – he has been a pleasant surprise and has been the best deadline pickup that the Pirates made this year. His numbers in KC this year were not bad, and were much improved over his numbers over the past 4-5 years. But, they have a very deep bullpen.

    Now, with all that being said, I am not ready to annoint him as “one of the best relievers in MLB” – not after just 6 appearances and 13 innings pitched. But, I am thrilled with his performance so far – he was a key to at least 2 recent wins, where he pitched multiple innings of shutout relief.

  • Man, the FIP really looks like an outlier compared to his career. I realize moving from starter to reliever skews it some. But I would be shocked if we didn’t see some kind of regression in September.

    But they needed a Holdzkom -esque middle type to come along. Hope he can do something similar during the stretch.

    • It’s unreal. They went from no one reliable after Melancon, Watson and Hughes to acquiring another Holdzkom type (though almost a completely different pitcher in Blanton) and all the sudden Bastardo, Caminero are on a roll. Add in Soria for a reasonable cost. I don’t wanna discount the work they did with Caminero or the time it took there but the transformation almost seems overnight.

      • Bullpens, man.

        Blows my mind that a half decent bullpen most likely kept Dombrowski from winning a ring with the Tigers.

        • Due to my schedule I usually get to turn on the end of most post season playoff games. I was able to see the end of Games 1 and 2 against the Orioles. It was hard to watch just as someone who likes to watch baseball. I’m hoping Soria has a short memory.

    • Its time through the order, in the season when Blanton broke FIP, his OPS against each turn was, .749/.949/.1.053

      • I see. So essentially putting him in the pen, limited exposure. If they keep him, I hope he stays a reliever then.

        • You are correct, I wouldn’t expect a 1.5 FIP and striking out 8 of 11 or whatever it was the other night going forward, but all pitchers should get better when they only have to face a hitter once.

  • What was the move that led to him being let go of KC? I was amazed when I saw him pitch against the Pirates. I was also pissed because it seemed like they kept swinging at his balls in the dirt but even after they laid off he was still able to get them out with other pitches. Fantastic pick up.

    • He was let go when they got Cueto.

    • If you asked a Royals fan today, I think they have some remorse seeing Blanton go. That Davis, Herrera, Holland trio isn’t near what they were doing last year.

      • I’d be curious to see how the decision came down. If Cueto was added did another starter go to the pen making Blanton the odd man out? Don’t get me wrong, I was happy with the pickup because of what I saw in the few innings I did. Plus they were essentially just replacing their long man which is the 7th guy so when there was minor outrage I couldn’t grasp why. But I never expected close to this.

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