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 2/3 innings falls behind just a baker’s dozen of pitchers which includes the likes of CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, and others that are never associated as being comparable to Blanton in any way. When examining his strikeout and walk rates it is normally easier to relate to or understand the per-nine numbers, but these figures can be skewed based on what happens in an inning, making the per-PA data a bit more accurate. With that disclaimer out of the way, the numbers above tell me that Blanton was in no way a world-beater on the strikeout front for his first few seasons, but was stingier than the league as far as issuing free passes.

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:

Year Team        SO/PA  UBB/PA
2008 Athletics   11.3%    5.8%
2008 Phillies    16.1%   10.2%
2009 Phillies    19.5%    6.6%

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.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
If you line them up by age, Blanton looks a lot like Livan Hernandez and Blanton's "good" years look a lot like Garland's "good" year. Yes, Blanton's k rate was better in '09 than Garland's has ever been but it was also better than Blanton's has ever been so we may want to wait to see if it's repeated.

I agree that he's on the better end of the LAIM bucket but he's still in that bucket. You would laugh at a team that signed him to be a #1 or 2 starter. He's a marginal #3, a pretty good 4 and a really good 5th man.

That's valuable but he's got to improve more to get out of this bucket.
Blanton is projected by PECOTA to have a 4.00 ERA. Only 14 of 30 teams have two starters who are projected by PECOTA to be below 4.00. Only 4 teams have three starters projected below 4.00, and only one team has four starters projected below 4.00. In fact, 5 teams don't even have any starters projected below 4.00.

So Blanton would be about the #1 for 5 teams, the #2 for 11 teams, the #3 for 25 teams, the #4 for 5 teams, and the #5 for 1 team. I don't see how anybody could think he was a marginal #3.

I think what you might be missing is the strikeout rate is pretty much the most persistent stats in the league. When it changes, it usually doesn't regress back very far if at all.
"marginal #3" may be a bit harsh, but BP's Marc Normandin thinks he's a "middle-of-the-pack #3" ...
Three stars is not #3. There are 19 NL pitchers in that are Four stars and five stars there, but 16 NL teams. He's somewhere between the 20th and 37th most valuable fantasy starter in the NL according to that article, and that's accounting for the fact that he plays in a hitter's park in the NL East which is easier than the NL Central though maybe not easier than the NL West and obviously for a team that can get him W's.
Plus, there's a difference between real and fantasy value. I certainly mentioned fantasy owners shouldn't overlook him, but don't mistake what Marc's doing with his rankings -- three stars for fantasy purposes doesn't mean #3 pitcher. It means that, of the pitchers likely to be drafted by fantasy teams, Blanton is mid-pack, which still puts him in really good territory. Additionally, not everyone at BP has to agree -- this isn't groupthink. I might be higher on Blanton than others. It doesn't mean anyone is right or wrong, and I'd encourage everyone not to expect the writers here to always agree.
"a baker’s dozen of pitchers which includes the likes of CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, Johan Santana, Roy Halladay"

That's different than a Dusty Baker's dozen of pitchers that includes Prior, Wood, Volquez, et al?
It was very difficult to not put a joke similar to that in that very sentence.
Happy to help.
As a Phils fan I worry a bit about the increase in % of sliders - I think this is the toughest pitch on an arm, even one as durable as Blanton's.

On another note, did Amaro also see this (Blanton's increased effectiveness, not the high slider %) and use this as justification for the Lee trade? I don't think I ever heard him make a statement to that effect but who knows?

His HR against the Rays in the 08 series was the height of pitcher batting awesomeness.
There's an analogue to the Steve Martin rule in pop music. It seems that around 1984 or 1985, Larry Mullen, Jr., the drummer for U2, simply stopped aging. I think he may have recently started to slowly, slowly age again, but that was more than 20 years where he looked essentially unaged, year in, year out.
What's the second to last table for?
That table shows Blanton's rates when you remove PAs by opposing pitchers, to show that not everything in terms of his improvement was a byproduct of getting to face pitchers so much more often.
I was confused about this also, just missed it on first read-thru, thanks for the clarification ...

Also, you should check what PECOTA predicted last year ... what I know is that I got him my roto-style auction for cheaper than I expected, and I was basing my bid limits on PECOTA ... so that tells me that PECOTA 2009 was right on for Joe Blanton ... so there's no reason to way for mid-June 2010, BP can say "told ya so" right now!
Good point -- last year, he was projected for a 4.59 ERA in about 165 IP. His 4.05 ERA in 195 IP was somewhere between the 75th and 90th percentiles, we'll call it the 82.5 percentile. This year his projection calls for good number of innings and a 4.00 ERA, so it def believes what happened last year was real. Further evidence is his DT card, which shows the equivalent strikeout rate to be high, and that factors in league differences.
What does SIERA have to say about JB? Projections other than PECOTA have him for an ERA in the 4.20 range and a 1.32-ish WHIP. I would think you'd give us the SIERA numbers in an article like this.
SIERA had his efforts at 3.92 last season.