Nick Blackburn: Statistical Freak or Exemplar Waiting to Happen?

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Nick Blackburn: Statistical Freak or Exemplar Waiting to Happen?
(Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

As my colleague Andrew noted earlier today, Nick Blackburn has become one of baseball's better pitchers, but would still have to buy his own beer in most Minneapolis bars.

He doesn't have the dominating stuff of a Francisco Liriano nor the shutdown game possessed by Scott Baker, nor even the untapped potential of Kevin Slowey, but he's got an ERA under three and has been one of the Twins most consistent pitchers in a season of uncertainty.

Blackburn is on a string of starts that most pitchers, irrespective of style, would love to have. After shutting down the Tigers on Sunday, Blackburn stretched his string of quality starts to nine. His last poor start came on May 16 in New York, and even that was far from abominable.

Of his 17 starts so far in 2009, just one was truly forgettable: his 3.1 IP, 9R, 6ER stinker in his previous start against Porcello and these Tigers.

With one start remaining before the break, Blackburn holds the 13th best ERA in baseball despite having the 36th best WHIP. Without question he has been good, but can the Twins count on such success in the second half?

His Fielding Independent Pitching is 4.07, meaning his defense has much to do with his low ERA, which ought to make sense for anyone who has seen Blackburn pitch. His xFIP or Expected Fielding Independent Pitching is worse still, 4.98, meaning Blackburn is going to pitch worse and need his defense more just to keep up his current success.

Blackburn's PECOTA projection (weighted mean) for this season was for a 6-9 record, an ERA of 5.42 and a WHIP of 1.53, a downright ugly line. His 90th percentile performance is pretty close to what he's given the Twins in the first half: 9-8, 4.04, 1.34. In season projection systems still have Blackburn as a .500 pitcher with an ERA closer to 4 than to 3.

A big part of why he'll never be a sexy figure in the projections is his minuscule strikeout rate. Blackburn drops just 3.95 per nine via the strikeout, fourth lowest among qualified pitchers, his teammate Francisco Liriano sets down a team best 8.19 for comparison's sake.

Strikeouts are fairly predictable, whereas continued defensive efficiency simply is not. Hence, strikeout-heavy pitchers are the darlings of projectors and guys like Nick Blackburn remain a mystery.

So, the $50,000 question is: Projections be damned, can Blackburn give the Twins a second half like his first?

The quick answer is probably not. As I mentioned before, Blackburn is pitching above his 90th percentile projection, he's been pitching basically as well as a pitcher with his stuff can and there's simply a point at which hitters get wise. 

However, there is no reason to believe that he'll hit the wall in late July.

Blackburn is a very odd pitcher in that he is neither a groundball pitcher, nor a flyball pitcher, nor a strikeout pitcher. However, he has increased his groundball rate and flyball rate at the expense of his line drive rate, which means hitters aren't hitting him as hard as they have in the past.

The increase in groundballs is an unmitigated good sign, but the flyballs can be worrying; some flyballs end up over the fence after all. However, Blackburn's home runs per flyball rate is on a three year decline, meaning his flyballs are finding his outfielders' gloves far more often than they end up in the stands.

Projecting Blackburn is going to be very difficult from here on out, he simply doesn't fit neatly into the categories that make guys projectable.

Interpreting that as a condemnation, however, is simply foolish. There is every reason to believe that Nick Blackburn will be a huge asset to the Twins' pennant chase, even if he does regress a little bit.

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