August 3, 2012
Dodgers Trade for Blanton
Sometimes, baseball puts your biases to the test. I don't know you, but I suspect that you have some regard for strikeout-to-walk ratio as a quick-and-dirty measure of a pitcher's effectiveness. If you needed somebody to start Game Three or Four of your favorite team's post-season series, you'd probably be comfortable picking randomly from the top-10 leaderboard in the NL: Lee, Strasburg, Halladay, Cain, Bumgarner, Dickey, Greinke, Zimmermann, and even Kennedy would do just fine. But what about the guy at the top?
Joe Blanton has struck out 115 batters this year, and he has walked 18. That's more than six Ks per walk, and nobody else in the NL has topped five. He sticks out, not just because he's so far ahead of everybody else, but because he's (probably) the worst pitcher on that list, by a margin that could stretch from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he will now pitch. Next time you're explaining to your uncle or coworker why K:BB ratio is so obviously better than pitcher wins, you'd better hope he doesn't have access to the internet, and you'd better hope he's never heard of Joe Blanton.
What Blanton has done—great ratio, lousy results—isn't confined in Philadelphia to Joe Blanton. The Phillies overall have the best K:BB ratio in the NL. By a lot, actually; the gap between them and the second-best team is bigger than the gap between no. 2 and the median. But the Phillies overall have been poor at keeping runs off the board: 11th in runs allowed, 10th in ERA, ninth in ERA+. They've given up the third-most home runs (and the third-highest rate of home runs per fly ball), and they have allowed the fourth-highest batting average on balls in play. Whether there is a systemic problem in Philadelphia is a legitimate area for study, as the Blanton Effect—good ratio, bad ERA—has infected a number of Phillies this year, including Halladay, Lee, and pretty much the entire bullpen. BABIP and HR/FB are two factors that are prone to luck-based fluctuation, but not, we would expect, for an entire team over an entire season.
Blanton, though, can't simply claim luck and expect better. Strikeouts are a great way to measure a pitcher, and walks are a great way to measure a pitcher, but there is also the factor of hittability. There is an equilibrium between the three; a pitcher who upends that equilibrium can certainly avoid walks, by throwing a steady supply of hittable pitches. So Joe Blanton has found the secret to a high K:BB ratio. Huzzah. But while adding a bit of bold ink to his Baseball-Reference page, he has also seen his line-drive rate reach a career high. He is allowing fly balls at the second-highest rate of his career. And he is allowing home runs on a higher percentage of fly balls than he ever has before. All of which helps explain why Joe Blanton's K:BB breakout is no breakout at all, and why his 88 ERA+ looks perfectly at home on a Joe Blanton profile page.
Sometimes clubs make a trade because they want to strengthen the postseason roster. Other times, they need every ounce of effort just to make the playoffs. This is about the second scenario. Blanton will give the Dodgers another reliable arm as they try to win the NL West. (Our playoff odds report, incidentally, has the Dodgers as underdogs not just to the Giants but to the Diamondbacks, who trail LA by a game and a half.) Ted Lilly was "a little sore" after his first rehab appearance, and is making his second today. In the meantime, Blanton is a better option than Stephen Fife, and he might even benefit from the change in ballpark and a new defense behind him. But he isn't anywhere near the pitcher Dodgers fans should want to see starting a playoff game. And barring an injury to Ted Lilly or another starter (maybe two), he probably won't.