- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Nick Blackburn's ERA was 5.14 as he prepared for his start against the Chicago White Sox on May 4, and he was scrambling for solutions. As he and catcher Rene Rivera talked about the White Sox hitters and how they wanted to pitch to them, they stumbled upon an approach that has worked against all teams Blackburn has faced since then.
"We were kind of searching, trying to figure out how to get guys out," he said in a phone interview. "We found a little bit of a groove."
Yes, he did. Blackburn has played a major role in, first, stabilizing the Twins, and now in their push back toward .500; he is 5-0 with a 2.28 ERA in his last nine starts.
The White Sox are aggressive and free-swinging at the plate, and Blackburn and Rivera decided before that May 4 start that they would work inside with fastballs. And this, in turn, would open up the outer half of the plate for Blackburn's offspeed pitches. The Minnesota right-hander allowed one run in 6.2 innings that day, results that reinforced something for Blackburn: If he pitched inside, aggressively, he would create more space for himself in another part of the strike zone. What this meant, too, was that Blackburn didn't have to be quite as precise with his command, because his margin for error with the strike zone would be larger.
Pitching inside can be treacherous business, because of the risk of home runs. But Blackburn's reputation among advance scouts is as a pitcher who is generally fearless; he can overcome the reality that he doesn't have Justin Verlander's fastball by being aggressive, by challenging hitters. "I just started attacking the strike zone a little bit more, instead of nitpicking at the corners," said Blackburn.
Blackburn is not a hitter, but he knows there is something about the makeup of most hitters that makes them hate getting beat by a fastball inside. They can't stand that, and if a pitcher busts them inside with fastballs, they will turn and try to get to that pitch, like a guard dog lurching at the sound of anything outside a front door. This tendency can create opportunity elsewhere in the strike zone, though.
From ESPN Stats and Info, how Baker beat the Padres:
A. Baker relied primarily on two pitches, throwing a season-high 30 percent sliders and a season-low 59 percent fastballs. He induced a season-best 18 swing-and-misses, all but one of which came on his slider or fastball. All 10 of his strikeouts came on those two pitches, including six on his slider -- his most in any start in the last three seasons.
B. Changed eye levels: The first time through the order, Baker threw 57 percent of his pitches up in the zone. Four of his six strikeouts to the first nine hitters came on pitches up. The second time through, he fired just 32 percent of his pitches up in the zone. The third time through and beyond, he threw 40 percent of his pitches up. Six of Baker's 10 strikeouts for the game came on pitches up. Despite ranking 17th in the majors in strikeouts, Baker is by far the leader in strikeouts on pitches up in the zone.
• The Nationals never lose these days -- they've won eight straight, and counting, after Saturday's victory -- and if you're starting to envision a knight in shining armor named Strasburg riding into the pennant race, you might want to temper that expectation. He is still in the midst of his throwing program, and above all else, the Nationals will focus on getting him back healthy -- which means that they aren't going to rush him back to pitch a few innings in September. In fact, the team hasn't really considered the possibility of him pitching in the last weeks of the season because he's got a long way to go -- he's throwing off a mound at 50 to 60 percent, without throwing any breaking balls yet. He's made slow and steady progress.
They do have Michael Morse now, and he's killing the ball.
From ESPN Stats and Info:
Saturday, Morse hit his sixth HR in his last 13 games (7 HR in first 49 games this season).
Since becoming the Nationals' starting 1B on May 22, Morse has been among the best hitters in baseball, hitting .359 with 11 homers and 31 RBIs.
A general manager mused on Friday about how different the awareness is of prospects than in past decades. It used to be that a team would swap a little-known minor leaguer for a star and nobody really paid attention to the potential of the younger player in the deal.
"But now, the fans know a lot more about the prospects than they used to, because of what they read online, in Baseball America," said the GM. "In some ways, the prospects are now already stars before they get here."
He meant this as an observation of a baseball evolution, and not as a criticism. And anybody who watches the NFL draft knows what he is talking about. Fans cheer and boo vociferously the selection of players most of them haven't seen and don't know much about, other than a couple of video clips and some paragraphs in Mel Kiper's Big Board summary.
"The reality is," the general manager said, "that there's still a long way to go for the prospects. The guy who is in high-A still has a lot of work to do to be a good player in the major leagues, and there's no sure thing. When a star player is traded for some prospects, you might know the history of the prospects and feel good about what they might do, but that doesn't mean it's going to work out. A star player is established, he's already producing.
"A lot of those deals of a star for a prospect don't work out."
Sometimes they do. The Rangers' haul for Mark Teixeira in the deal with the Braves is now legendary -- Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, etc. -- and of course, there was Montreal's infamous swap of Bartolo Colon -- for Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee. But in many cases, the prospects never pan out for the team that acquires them.
Such as when the Florida Marlins, whose baseball operations department is greatly respected, traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis -- and got back a package of players highlighted by Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller. Neither prospect worked out for the Marlins, and are now with other teams.
"It's really hard to get equal value," said the GM.
• Jose Reyes stated definitively that he is staying with his longtime agents and will not switch to Scott Boras. Interestingly, the Players Association has implemented rules regarding the contact between players and competing agents: It's strictly prohibited unless they go through the union first, or, if it's a chance meeting, they have to notify the union within 72 hours.
Some agents privately scoff at the notion that these rules are honored, saying that some agents will circumvent them by sending intermediaries to speak with targeted players. "My attitude is, if they're going to have rules in place, then they better damn well enforce them," said one longtime agent.
Reyes has become the Mets' new franchise player, says one of the former franchise players, Tom Seaver, as Tim Smith writes.
Here's an interesting question, posed by a really smart baseball man: What position player in the majors best fits Citi Field, with its spacious dimensions and need for speed and defense?
And the answer is obvious: Reyes, who turns singles into doubles and doubles into triples at the plate. It would make no sense for the Mets to keep players who don't fit their park and jettison a player who could not fit it more perfectly.
Joel Sherman writes about the pros and cons for the Mets, as they make the decision whether to buy or sell.
• Omar Vizquel had a .273 on-base percentage in his first full year in the big leagues, and it wasn't until 1992 that he cracked the .250 mark in batting average. And maybe that is the role model for Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, who has been known -- until recently -- as an all-field, no-hit player. But he has been slamming out hits all over the place lately, going 14-for-25 in one stretch, and he's taken his average up to the .250 range. All season, he and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer have been working on how Escobar loads up his hands for his swing, and on Escobar's pitch selection -- and these days, he looks like a whole new player.
• Randy Wells, who starts for the Cubs tonight on "Sunday Night Baseball," worked on trusting his stuff in his last side session -- on not trying to create movement by driving through his sinker in his delivery, but instead just letting it go.
• Marlon Byrd is hoping to start a rehabilitation assignment in a week, and be back after about 30 at-bats in the minor leagues.
• CC Sabathia loves to hit, but in chatting on Saturday, he noted a trend: The more he hits, the worse he gets. When he played for the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2008 season, he hit well at the outset, but faded. So these one-game interleague opportunities might be better for him.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Realignment could lead to a more favorable schedule for the Rays. From Marc Topkin's story:
- "Any idea that has been contemplated would be helpful to the Rays," team president Matt Silverman said. "It can't get worse."
The benefit of the balanced schedule would be obvious: More games against teams with similar financial foundations and construction, such as the Royals and Indians, and fewer against their tougher and richer AL East rivals, specifically the Red Sox and Yankees, whom they currently play 36 times in a 162-game schedule (22.2 percent).
"As much as I relish and cherish the competition," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "tell me what other team would say I wish we played these guys 18 times each?"
Buster Olney writes about how Nick Blackburn changed his pitching approach, which has in turn helped the Twins get on a roll.