Joe Blanton: Needle in a Haystack?

If you are still reading after I started my blog post with the words “Joe Blanton” – thank you.  And bear with me, please.  I must admit, he conjures visions of the stereotypical innings eater, 5th starter on a middling to slightly above average team – and one who as he as aged has come with more and more injury concerns.   I’m starting to convince myself otherwise.

Since he broke into the league in 2005, Blanton has thrown at least 175 IP  over at least 28 starts each year except 2011 (not necessarily consistent with his reputation for spending time on the DL).   His total of 1031 puts him 31st over that period, and his FIP and xFIP are an identical 4.15, placing him squarely around league average (borne out with his xFIP- of 97).

League average innings eater has value at the major league level, though it certainly lacks sizzle.  When I look at his career, though there seem to be two distinct periods:

Year Tm ERA GS IP ERA+ WHIP HR/9 BB/9 SO/9
2004-2008 OAK,PHI 4.24 131 831.1 102 1.334 0.9 2.5 5.2
2009-2012 PHI,LAD 4.55 97 603.1 89 1.339 1.4 2.2 7.4

Early in his career he was average to slightly below average, and his very poor strikeout rate consistently more than offset the help he got from pitching in cavernous Oakland Coliseum.  A late 2008 trade sent Blanton to Philadelphia (where he went 2-0 over 3 postseason starts, helping the Phillies to their first World Series title since 1980).

Since 2008, Blanton’s actual ERA has risen a bit to 4.55, below average for the period.  But there are a few reasons to think that number understates his contribution.   First of all, Blanton has managed to significantly increase his strikeout rate, from a very below average 5.2/9 to an excellent 7.4/9.  Secondly, his xFIP of 3.72 is good for 27th out of the 100 pitchers that have managed 500 innings,just ahead of Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister.

His pitch type breakdown doesn’t make an open and shut case, but it does seem he now mixes in more cutters and off speed pitchers while throwing fewer fastballs.   In addition, the second half of his career has been spent in the National League, which would explain some of the increase in strikeouts (though not necessarily a 40% increase).   Regardless of the change, Blanton’s 7.5K/9 is not to be ignored, and over the recent four years his peripherals have shown similar improvement:

Season

IP

WHIP

K/9

xFIP

2009 195.1 1.32 7.51 4.01
2010 175.2 1.42 6.87 3.87
2011 41.1 1.48 7.62 3.15
2012 191 1.26 7.82 3.39

Of course, critics will point out (somewhat correctly, I might add) that xFIP normalizes for league average HR rates, and Joe Blanton seems to have a significant history of allowing home runs at rates far above league average, so at some point this “skill” (or lack thereof) must be recognized.

Fair point – however, fortunately for Blanton (or perhaps as part of his plan to continue posting solid SP numbers),  he has left the hitters paradise known as Citizens Bank Park and signed on with the Angels in the AL West.  So in addition to pitching half of his games in LA, he will be able to pitch in Seattle and back home in Oakland.  According to Fangraphs, Angels Stadium was one of the best pitchers parks in baseball, with a particular strength as a run suppressor (park factor of 96 for HRs), in stark contract to Philadelphia’s 104 rating.  For those balls that stay in the park, Blanton should find Mike Trout, Peter Bourjos and Josh Hamilton chasing them down.

In summary then, we have a pitcher who has shown remarkable durability over an 8 year career despite a reputation for fragility.  Further, his ability to miss bats has increased significantly through the past 3 seasons, and a disproportionate amount of the damage he allows is on HRs, which conveniently should fly out of the ballpark with relative less frequency starting next April (and should be caught with much greater regularity by the best OF defense in baseball).  Joe Blanton is certainly not going to be mistaken for Justin Verlander or Stephen Strasburg, but should prove a valuable part of the Angels rotation and should surprise a lot of baseball fans in 2013.

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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