The Best MLB Pitcher You've (Probably) Never Heard Of

Zachary D. RymerMay 18, 2022

Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Paul Blackburn throws against the Colorado Rockies during the first inning of a spring training baseball game Saturday, April 2, 2022, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

The pitcher who co-leads the American League in WAR with Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander is probably not the one you think.

It's not New York Yankees sensation Nestor Cortes, who's seeing Verlander's 1.38 ERA and raising him a 1.35 ERA. Nor is it Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Kevin Gausman, whose relatively modest 2.40 ERA comes with a comical strikeout-to-walk ratio of 54-to-2.

Rather, the one AL hurler who's been as valuable as Verlander in 2022 is...Paul Blackburn?

That's his name, all right. I would say "don't wear it out," but probably only the most diehard Oakland Athletics fans are guilty of repeating Blackburn's name this season. And judging from the team's attendance, those are the only fans showing up to watch the A's.

All the same, the 28-year-old righty is performing like a true No. 1 starter. In seven starts, he's gone 4-0 and logged a 1.67 ERA through 37.2 innings. Though he's struck out only 29 batters, he's otherwise dominated the three true outcomes by permitting only five walks and one home run.

Since all this is coming from a guy whose previous five seasons in the majors produced a grand total of 30 appearances and a 5.74 ERA, you probably have questions. So, please allow me to guess what they are and attempt to answer them.

Where Did This Guy Come From?

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Mike Montgomery #38 of the Chicago Cubs celebrates after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Put it this way: Without Blackburn, Mike Montgomery might never have been a Chicago Cub and, by extension, been the guy to record the final out of the 2016 World Series.

The Cubs originally drafted Blackburn out of Heritage High School in Brentwood, California, with the 56th pick in the 2012 draft. Largely on account of his above-average curveball and ability to throw strikes, he went into 2016 ranked by Baseball America as the organization's No. 19 prospect. He then further boosted his stock with a 3.17 ERA in 18 starts through July for its Double-A affiliate.

That's when the Cubs decided to cash Blackburn in, sending him to the Seattle Mariners in a four-player deal that brought Montgomery back to the North Side. The rest, as they say, is history 108 years in the making.

Just months later in November, the Mariners flipped Blackburn to the A's for Danny Valencia. Baseball America only considered him the team's 23rd-best prospect going into the subsequent spring, but he made an impression on Bob Melvin. The former A's skipper told reporters it "wouldn’t surprise me at all" if the then-23-year-old Blackburn debuted in 2017.

That event indeed came to pass on July 1, 2017, and it begat the start of a successful 10-start run that saw the Bay Area native pitch to a 3.22 ERA over 58.2 innings. Best of all was when he got to take it to the Mariners with 7.2 innings of one-run ball in just his second start.

"Your first start is kind of an out-of-body experience, and then your second start is about performing," Melvin said. "And certainly against the team he was with, got traded from, gets to pitch against them ... a really, really good performance from him."

Alas, Blackburn's fun run ended with a literal bad break when he got hit by a comebacker on the right wrist on Aug. 22. That proved to be his final appearance of the season.

So it went in 2018, when he came down with a forearm strain in spring training and didn't make his first appearance until June. Though his arm recovered, he was hardly able to sustain his productivity from '17 as he got lit up for a 7.16 ERA over six appearances with Oakland.

Blackburn subsequently made only five appearances in the majors across 2019 and 2020, and the A's even designated him for assignment in February 2021. He stayed in the organization, but only resurfaced in the majors to get knocked around again for a 5.87 ERA in nine starts as a fill-in for Chris Bassitt after the veteran righty was struck by a line drive in August.

Blackburn seemed ticketed for a similar role as an emergency option in 2022, but that changed when the A's opened up two rotation spots with trades of Bassitt and Sean Manaea.

Blackburn might have earned one of those the old-fashioned way, but that's not exactly what happened. He served up nine runs on 13 hits and five walks in 8.2 innings during the spring, and thus only opened the season in Oakland's rotation because injuries took James Kaprielian and Brent Honeywell out of the running.

So, How's He Doing This?

DETROIT, MI - MAY 09: Oakland Athletics starting pitcher Paul Blackburn (58) pitches in the sixth inning during the Detroit Tigers versus the Oakland As game on Monday May 9, 2022 at Comerica Park in Detroit, MI. (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As for how Blackburn went from just lucky to be in the A's rotation to competing with Verlander, Cortes and Gausman for the AL Cy Young Award, to understand it requires an appreciation for the craft of pitching.

At no point during his prospect days was he billed as a prototypical major league ace, and he still doesn't resemble one now in spite of his ace-like numbers. He's sitting at an average of only 91.7 mph even after improving his fastball velocity. His whiff rate, meanwhile, is barely above average in the 52nd percentile.

Yet one thing Blackburn has always had is a deep arsenal of pitches. And even more so in 2022 now that he's added a slider with well-above-average movement vertical and horizontal movement, thereby expanding his repertoire to six distinct offerings:

Image courtesy of Baseball Savant

“I think it’s just going to give me more swing-and-miss to righties," Blackburn said of his new slider. "I feel like that’s just kind of what I’ve needed to get done over the last couple years and I haven’t been able to do that."

So far, so good. The 26 sliders Blackburn has thrown to right-handed batters have yielded six swings and misses and only one hit on four balls in play.

His best pitch even in the worst of times, Blackburn's curve is holding opposing batters to one hit in 22 at-bats in its own right. Between that and his slider, it's fair to say that his ability to spin the ball is a key part of his success.

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Paul Blackburn, Nasty 3 Breaking Ball K (with Two Swords). ⚔️⚔️ <a href="https://t.co/GifEUnXHRU">pic.twitter.com/GifEUnXHRU</a>

Blackburn has also spoken about throwing his curveball, slider and his other secondary pitches with a "fastball mentality." With a certain aggressiveness, in other words, which especially shows in how he's throwing first-pitch strikes a career-best 64.8 percent of the time even as he's only leading with his sinker in 35.2 percent of 0-0 counts.

Blackburn is also just plain throwing more strikes the old-fashioned way. At 47.0 percent, his rate of pitches in the strike zone is the highest it's ever been. It's not as easy to measure the quality of his command, but he's clearly adept at working on the outside of the zone against both left-handed and right-handed batters:

Images via Baseball Savant

All in all, Blackburn's approach to pitching contains multitudes. The effect is not unlike if the A's had simply kept Bassitt, who similarly thrives on a deep repertoire and unpredictable sequencing and location patterns, and changed his name to Paul Blackburn. 

“He mixes all of his pitches, throwing to locations, keeping guys guessing, keeping everybody off-balance, pitching to contact, being efficient," A's catcher Sean Murphy said of Blackburn. "All the good things you could say about a pitcher.”

But Can He Keep This Up?

DETROIT, MI -  MAY 9:  Catcher Sean Murphy #12 of the Oakland Athletics receives a pat on the chest from pitcher Paul Blackburn #58 as manager Mark Kotsay leaves the dugout to make a change during the seventh inning of a game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on May 9, 2022, in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
Duane Burleson/Getty Images

If this question can be taken more specifically to mean "Can Blackburn maintain an ERA in the 1.00s?" then the answer is a pretty blatant no.

Even still, the forecast doesn't seem to be for a regression back to the utter ineffectiveness that defined Blackburn's last four seasons.

His 2.94 expected ERA may be a fair deal higher than his actual ERA, but it's still good for 14th among all pitchers who've had at least 100 balls put in play. At No. 15 is none other than Bassitt. At No. 12, just ahead of fellow A's hurler Frankie Montas, is reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes.

This speaks to just how harmless the majority of balls in play off Blackburn have been. Slightly over half (50.9 percent) have been ground balls. The 21 fly balls off him have averaged just 303 feet in distance, a full 10 feet below the leaguewide average of 313 feet.

If anything, those numbers understate the difficulty that batters have had driving the ball against Blackburn. By launch angle, his average mark of 3.2 degrees is behind only Framber Valdez and Logan Webb. There's also virtually no difference between his actual (1.0) and expected (0.9) home runs allowed.

It also helps Blackburn's cause that A's manager Mark Kotsay isn't tasking him with writing checks that his arm can't cash. He's maxed out at 88 pitches and has gotten a third trip through the lineup in just five of his starts.

How Long Will He Remain an A?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 18: General Manager David Forst and Manager Mark Kotsay #7 of the Oakland Athletics on the field before the game against the Baltimore Orioles at RingCentral Coliseum on April 18, 2022 in Oakland, California. The Athletics defeated the Orioles 5-1. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images)
Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Unfortunately for A's fans, there just isn't any avoiding this question any time the team produces a new star.

Unless you count Marcus Semien despite his value-killing walk year in 2020, you have to go all the way back to Barry Zito in 2006 to find the last time the A's actually held on to a star player until free agency called his number. Since then, many others—up to and including Bassitt, Manaea, Matt Olson and Matt Chapman this past winter—have left town via trades during their arbitration years.

As he's under club control through 2025, this won't necessarily be Blackburn's fate in the near future. But at the same time, anyone who says it can be ruled out completely has too much faith in the organization's commitment to fielding a competitive team.

The A's deliberately punted on contending when they held their fire sale after the Major League Baseball lockout lifted in March, so it's no great surprise that they are in the AL West cellar with a 16-23 record. Once Montas is inevitably traded, Oakland's timeline for returning to contention figures to get even longer.

It's conceivable that the A's will be a contender again before Blackburn's club control is up, yet the complication there is that he's eligible for arbitration for the first time next year. That will result in his salary being measured in millions rather than thousands. If they want to keep their payroll below the $50 million threshold, the A's might not find that palatable.

It thus wouldn't be surprising if the A's shopped Blackburn this winter or even this summer. As a controllable late-bloomer on a team that's going nowhere fast, he has a profile similar to that of Doug Fister when the Mariners traded him to the Detroit Tigers in 2011.

No matter when it happens, a trade of Blackburn would give A's fans yet another reason to be fed up with the organization. The silver lining for everyone else, though, is that such a thing would bring greater exposure to a pitcher who deserves to have it.