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March 10, 2010
Checking the Numbers
Leaving the Innings Buffet
About a month ago an internal e-mail thread circulated amongst the BP staff that eventually became our infamous robopitcher roundtable. The gist of the discussion was whether or not it would be preferable to employ a pitcher essentially guaranteed to surrender four runs in seven frames each time out, and how much that guarantee of consistency would be worth.
The resulting lengthy conversation is a fascinating read, but I kept noticing as my inbox grew that, in the process of trying to personify this hypothetical hurler, both staffers and front office sources alike kept tossing out the name Joe Blanton. I found this bothersome, as Blanton is better than a league-average pitcher, and does not embody the theoretical moundster. At least, not anymore, as he has graduated into a different bucket with his performance last season, yet an examination of the world-renowned innings eater invites an interesting discussion of not only the goateed Kentuckian himself, but also of our obsession with binning players.
The term "innings eater" is another way of describing a league-average innings muncher, or LAIM, which is a fantasy baseball strategy created by blogger Travis Nelson, in which rotations are stockpiled with those fitting the archetype of 175-180 innings and a league-average ERA somewhere around 4.50. These are the pitchers who will neither worry nor wow anyone, but who irrefutably add value. The term has since evolved and extended its reach to describe pitchers falling above or below the original threshold, which is where Blanton comes in; over the last year and a half he has proven himself to be in this above-average category and yet, to the larger group of fans, he is no different from a binning perspective than Jon Garland, Braden Looper, or Livan Hernandez, all of whom are inferior pitchers who garnered the innings-eater moniker simply because nothing else on their resumes stood out as worthwhile.
This happens to be one of my biggest pet-peeves—the misuse of the term and not the term itself—as we are essentially suggesting that, if a pitcher is not an ace but better than a bum, he belongs in a large middle group. For some pitchers, this psychological exercise works, but someone like Blanton does not belong in the Looper Pile as he has left the innings buffet, and joined a new and exciting caste. On to some evidence that Blanton has in fact graduated; the table below features prominent rates for all of his five full seasons in the bigs:
Year Age IP ERA SO/PA UBB/PA 2005 24 201.1 3.53 13.9% 7.7% 2006 25 194.1 4.82 12.5% 6.3% 2007 26 230.0 3.95 14.7% 3.8% 2008 27 197.2 4.69 13.0% 7.4% 2009 28 195.1 4.06 19.5% 6.6%
For context, league-average SO/PA for full-time starters is closer to 16 percent, while UBB/PA right around 7.5 percent. Blanton entered the league at the young age of 23, saw significant action as a 24-year-old, and gobbled up those innings immediately, never logging fewer than 194 frames in any of his campaigns. His total in this span of 1018
In 2008, however, he was traded from the Athletics to the Phillies which muddles a straight comparison. What is interesting when looking at his 2008-09 rates is the difference between being on the A’s and the Phillies in 2008, and then comparing the latter to his 2009 numbers in the senior circuit. Below are his rates for these three stints:
The improvement in producing empty swings was evident when he joined the eventual champions in 2008, but he took even greater strides forward last season. The increase in walks when he joined the Phillies in 2008 can likely be attributed to a slight elbow injury the Phillies broadcasters pointed towards in his first few starts that lingered for a bit; it hurt his control but did not completely hamper his performance. The change, however, was not entirely a byproduct of switching to the much easier league—when I run his numbers against all non-pitchers, the rates do not shift by that much. More goes into parsing out differences between leagues than facing pitchers—as Oriole and Blue Jay fans will attest to—but his numbers improved even beyond the league switch.
Year PA SO/PA UBB/PA 2005 830 14.0% 7.7% 2006 852 12.4% 6.3% 2007 946 14.7% 3.8% 2008 829 12.2% 7.5% 2009 773 18.2% 7.0%
Last year marked such a vast improvement that readers double-taking at the initial table may need reassurance that it isn’t a typo on my part. It isn’t: Kentucky Joe stepped his game up last season, and was one of just 22 starters to both amass 195 or more frames while striking out 19 percent or more of their batters faced. This club is generally reserved for the upper echelon starters, those talented and durable enough to merit extended use and better labels than "LAIM-o." Sticking with the theme of Blanton’s 2009 performance officially moving him into a new bin, how many other starting pitchers accomplished what he did last season, by being on the mound as much (in a good way), preventing runs, inducing whiffs, and limiting walks? A query produces just 11 names, one of them Blanton's:
Pitcher IP PA ERA SO/PA UBB/PA Zack Greinke 229.1 915 2.16 26.4% 5.6% Adam Wainwright 233.0 970 2.63 21.9% 6.7% Roy Halladay 239.0 963 2.79 21.6% 3.6% Javier Vazquez 219.1 874 2.87 27.2% 4.8% Wandy Rodriguez 205.2 849 3.02 22.7% 6.8% Dan Haren 229.1 909 3.14 24.5% 4.0% Josh Johnson 209.0 855 3.23 22.3% 6.1% CC Sabathia 230.0 938 3.37 21.0% 6.4% Justin Verlander 240.0 982 3.45 27.4% 5.9% Josh Beckett 212.1 883 3.86 22.5% 6.1%
Blanton certainly isn’t to be found at Sabathia/Halladay/Haren-level greatness, but at the same time it should be clear that he is no Garland, Looper, or Livan either. What he brings to the table outweighs what would be expected from one of these league-average innings munchers. And while he may have the worst ERA of this group, that’s akin to calling a 91 the worst A-grade performance.
So what changed, aside from switching leagues? Something in his repertoire had to undergo a makeover, right? Looking at the PITCHf/x data, Blanton threw sliders just 6.7 percent of the time while on the Athletics in 2008, a frequency that skyrocketed to 19.8 percent while on the Phillies in the same year, and increased slightly further still to 20.1 percent last season; a decrease in curveballs and heaters made up for the difference. From a more cosmetic point of view, velocity on each of his pitches remained the same, and the deltas in movement were not material enough to merit their own table, which is interesting in the sense that movement is qualitatively correlated with grip, and Blanton has been known to toy around with different grips, a practice he is continuing even nowadays in spring training.
It is evident that Blanton has made conscious efforts to alter his approach, which go a long way towards explaining his statistical improvement beyond a mere switch of leagues, but one aspect of his improvements often ignored is age. Though Blanton suffers from what I refer to as Steve Martin Syndrome—someone who looks to be the exact same age for a really long period of time—he came into the league at a very young age, even though he looks to be perpetually 30 years old. So, even though it seems like he has been around for eight years, it stands to reason that he is still learning to do the pitching equivalent of shaking what his momma’ gave him.
In spite of his improvement and attributes, why hasn’t the larger population of fans noticed? Even in the last few weeks I have seen tweets where those I follow are a tad surprised how solid of a pitcher Blanton has become, and he is still the easy personification of a consistent but boring starter.
One reason has to do with the idea of binning itself, as with so many players to keep track of in the majors and minors it is a decent memory trick to break thousands of players down into eight or so major groupings. While talking to Russell Carleton, a comparison to ice cream surfaced: "Consider if someone asks you your feelings toward ice cream. In general, I like ice cream, but I hate butter pecan (vile substance... it should be banned from existence.) I'm ambivalent toward vanilla, and I love mint chocolate chip. But think about how much time it takes to think about all that, then say it." Per this metaphor, it’s easier for someone to equate Blanton and Garland to decent starters, even though the former is on the high end of the group, and the latter falls in the low end; easier than it is to memorize their stats and properly differentiate between the various groups to which they actually belong. This occurs because even while binning can be an effective form of memorizing players, the buckets used are not always well-informed or sensible.
Add in that Blanton’s numbers are not sexy enough to force someone to take notice and that he isn’t a frequent subject on the MLB Network or on Baseball Tonight, and it is no wonder why people are surprised at his 2009 campaign, and what it may represent moving forward. What is terribly difficult for fans is to move a player into a different bin. Once a label is assigned it takes a good amount of effort and energy to change an opinion and when someone’s improvement isn’t as apparent as, say, Zack Greinke’s last season, it is fairly likely that a pitcher in Blanton’s shoes will have declined by the time most people notice he improved from 2007-09 in the first place. Carleton suggested, as he always does regardless of the question at hand, that Blanton sleep with Madonna, not because she will give out special pitching powers, but because it will get him noticed. Blanton’s issue right now in this regard is anonymity, and if he appears uninteresting, few will yearn to cover him, which results in a vicious circle where everyone believes that he's uninteresting. He might not need to go to such great lengths to become more visible, but I do have a tough time believing his pitching performance alone will be the key factor here unless he improves at an exponential rate that demands attention.
The bottom line is that Joe Blanton is not a league-average innings muncher lucky to receive the three-year deal worth $24 million the Phillies signed him to earlier in the offseason, but rather a durable and effective pitcher who is still learning how to pitch, and one who has changed his approach to reap greater rewards. Fantasy players should not skip over him, and fans should start to take notice, because I would really prefer to avoid doling out told ya so’s come mid-June.