We’re almost exactly halfway through the 2012 season, and Diamondbacks lefthander Wade Miley, Orioles lefthander Wei-Yin Chen, Twins lefthander Scott Diamond, White Sox lefty Jose Quintana, and Athletics southpaw Travis Blackley have combined to throw 360 1/3 innings and allow 121 earned runs—good for a 3.02 ERA between them.
And, frankly, that’s shocking.
It’s of some surprise that any of those five pitchers have managed to post low-threes-or-better ERAs in several dozen innings. All entered the 2012 season as rookies, though Miley, Diamond, and Blackley had pitched in the majors before—none with much success. None of the five pitchers carried much pedigree or a perfect-world projection better than "fringy fourth starter." Quintana and Blackley looked more likely than not to stay in the minors for the duration of the season, Miley seemed blocked by Arizona’s bevy of young and talented arms, few believed in Scott Diamond, and nobody was quite sure what to make of Chen, as is the case with most Japanese league imports.
But here we are. All five southpaws have posted at least 1.0 fWAR in the first half of 2012. Their ERAs—which range from Quintana’s 2.19 to Chen’s 3.73—all seem to point toward each being a very valuable contributor going forward. But what’s driving their success, and does it seem to be sustainable? As usual, I’m going to turn to PITCHf/x to try to answer that question.
It makes sense to start with Wade Miley, because he's the one pitcher whose success absolutely cannot be shrugged off. He has a 2.87 ERA. He has a 3.29 FIP. He's thrown 94 innings. He plays in a tough park.
Last year, a few starts into Miley's big league career, I wrote this. Here are two (rather long) quotes from that piece. The first discusses the problems that led to Miley's struggles down the stretch in 2011. The second talks about what he did well in the midst of the trouble.
A mid-sized pitcher at 6'2", Miley gets very little plane on his fastball. His back leg collapses somewhat in his delivery, reminiscent of the mechanics used by Japanese pitchers, which decreases his downward plane and leverage on home plate. Furthermore, his relatively clean delivery provides little deception. Miley also throws somewhat across his body, which means that all of those inside fastballs to righties are coming all the way from the other side of the plate, since he steps toward first base somewhat (this does increase his deception to lefties and aid Miley's ability to control the running game, however.
Since the ball is coming in straight on a flat plane with little deception, there's not much that Miley's fastball has going for it beyond its average velocity and good (if predictable) location. This is particularly true because he leans heavily on the pitch (66.6% usage). He rarely uses his breaking pitches (just about 1/8 of the time), so hitters rarely have to look for anything with any sort of movement, between the heater and straight changeup.
Credit Miley for pounding the bottom of the zone with both of his offspeed offerings; it explains his slightly above-average groundball rate, not to mention his stellar homer prevention in the minors. Still, without plus movement on any of his pitches, his predictability with his location seems like it may be troublesome for him the second or third time through a batting order, not to mention the second or third game against a particular opponent.
That said, I applaud Miley for having a clear plan on attacking hitters, especially those from the opposite side of the plate. It's easy to see his walk rate coming down once he settles in, and his strikeout rate could go up as well, once he learns how to finish them off. Without a bigtime fastball or breaking pitch, he's not going to become a star, but he could turn into a nice fourth starter in the mold of current Diamondback Joe Saunders.
Those two quotes neatly frame the lengthy discussion I am about to undertake. To explain Miley's success, we must examine his ability to correct past deficiencies as well as the blossoming of his most significant strengths.
In 2011, Wade Miley allowed six home runs in 40 innings (1.35 HR/9). This can largely be attributed to poor luck (15.4% HR/FB), but from more of a scouting perspective, it seemed quite possible that his lack of downward plane on his fastball would lead to problems when he missed up in the zone with it.
So, this year, he came out with a new two-seam fastball that he throws nearly as often as his usual four-seamer. It doesn't really sink, but it does have very good tailing action, making it tough for batters to square up when played off the four-seamer. He's ticked his groundball rate up from 46.2% to 47.6%, and the different look of the pitch has no doubt played a part in his homer rate and HR/FB being cut in half this year. Regression to the mean certainly helps, as well.
Furthermore, Miley's picked up a bit of velocity this year. His fastball averaged 90.3 mph last season; this year, his four-seamer's up to 91.2, while the new two-seamer is at 90.5. He's also added a bit of power to his slurve, which now comes in in the 79-83 range. Last year, it was more at 77-80. Between the addition of the two-seamer, the velocity increase, and Miley's adaptations to the league the second time around, it shouldn't be surprising that his strikeout rate has jumped from 13.9% to 17.2%, making me look smart for saying things like "his strikeout rate could go up as well."
But the increase in his strikeout rate is rather trivial--it certainly doesn't explain shaving a full two runs off of his FIP. To explain why Wade Miley is suddenly an excellent major-league pitcher, we have to return to another sentence in that quote above.
I applaud Miley for having a clear plan for attacking hitters.
Well, that seems pretty basic, doesn't it? One would think--and certainly hope--that in order for a pitcher to ascend all the way to Major League Baseball, he has to have some idea of what he's doing out there. But let's go on a tangent for a bit here. Take a look at this location chart:
Can you make any sense out of this? At all? Stare at it long enough, and one can discern a few things-the changeups tend to be lower than the fastballs, for one--but this seems a lot like a random array of dots. Does this pitcher have a plan, or is he just going out there and throwing the ball in the direction of the plate?
This pitcher is Cliff Lee. Cliff Lee's command may not be the stuff of legends, but it's excellent at worst. Of course Cliff Lee has a plan. The idea of a pitcher with such stellar K/BB ratios, not to mention a guy who just looks so in command out there, just birdshotting the home plate area seems totally laughable.
And yet, there's where his pitches in 2011 ended up.
Next time you hear an announcer say "The pitcher threw a great game, but he made one mistake, and that cost him," remember this graph. Cliff Lee, who has some of the best command in the game, leaves a pitch belt-high down the middle about as often as he spots the ball at the knees over the outside corner. If you divide the strike zone into a 3x3 grid, he probably leaves somewhere between six and ten pitches in the middle box in most starts, not to mention pitches that are middle-in, middle-away, middle-high, and middle-low.
So, pitches by even a control master aren't necessarily as precisely located as the naked, narrative-seeking eye might have you believe. And that's fine--Cliff Lee still had one heck of a 2011 season with the above locations. That's one thing to take away from this--a pitcher doesn't have to sit and paint the corners to succeed, because no pitcher can do that on a regular basis.
But there's another lesson, and here's where it comes back to Wade Miley. Of course, Cliff Lee does have a plan--PITCHf/x's locations just don't really capture it. But if PITCHf/x isn't indicating that someone with Lee's command is a master of his craft, then we should really pay attention when it is showing positive trends in a pitcher's location tendencies.
Here's Miley's 2012 locations:
Like Lee, Miley leaves quite a few pitches down the middle. Unlike Lee, though, he clearly he a tendency to keep the ball down-note the whitespace in the top of the strike zone. That's why he's able to get an above-average number of groundballs despite having little sink on his pitches and little downward plane in his motion.
But let's break this down further. Here are each of his pitches:
Miley has four pitches, and he uses the movement on each optimally. He throws his running two-seamer to the arm side, running away from righties and in on lefties. Playing off of that, he works his straighter four-seamer to the glove side. The changeup, which moves very similarly to his two-seamer, is spotted in the same areas as the two-seamer. The slurve is thrown down and away from lefties and down and in to righties, where it's tough to lay off.
If you hadn't seen how erratic Cliff Lee's chart was, none of this would be all that surprising. But when the majority of pitchers' location charts seem to be scattered around nearly randomly, to see patterns this clear is indicative of a high degree of resourcefulness in Miley's attack.
I first took Wade Miley seriously as a prospect in mid-2010, at which time he had struck out 50 batters and walked 37 in 80 1/3 innings in High-A ball. Not exactly impressive, those statistics. But in that time, Wade Miley did something truly extraordinary--he allowed just one home run.
Now, pitchers go long stretches with just one homer allowed often enough that the above may not seem that impressive. But what makes it so shocking was that it came in the California League, a place that makes excellent pitching prospects often look overmatched and light-hitting glove players appear to be dominant offensive forces.
In his time in that circuit, Miley posted a 3.24 ERA and 3.54 FIP. He didn't have the stuff to overpower guys even at that level of competition, so what did he do? He found a way to make it work.
When he was promoted out of the CAL to the offense-neutral Southern League, suddenly Miley allowed a few more homers (0.62 HR/9), but his strikeout rate jumped by nearly 50% and he trimmed a bit off his walk rate. He could afford to pitch in the zone more at that level, because mistakes didn't cost as much, so he adjusted accordingly and continued to find a way to get his overall numbers to a good place. The same continued at Triple-A, where he was thrust into the tough Reno environment but found a way to keep the ball out of play, raising his strikeout rate and cutting his walk rate again.
What are the two most important aspects of defense-independent pitching? If your first guess is strikeouts, you're already wrong. The formula for FIP is, of course, ((13HR+3BB-2K)/IP)+3.1. The homers have a coefficient of 13, walks three, and strikeouts just two. The most important aspects of defense-independent pitching, therefore, are the avoidance of homers and walks.
And Wade Miley, in his second tour around the National League, has found a way to avoid homers and walks. He never walked below 6% of batters at any level of the minors, but he's at 5% in the big leagues this year, exactly half of his 2011 rate. I already detailed the addition of the two-seamer and the above-average groundball rate, which should help keep the homers down. And it's hard to imagine that the guy who tamed the CAL fences so masterfully two years ago will end up as a below-average preventer of home runs in the major leagues, anyway.
Does any of this make Miley the ace his 2.87 ERA says he is? Of course not. I wouldn't want Wade Miley starting Game 1 of a playoff series for me. Miley epitomizes the hurler who does not beat himself, but his stuff is fairly pedestrian, so he can be beaten. He's not the sort of pitcher who's a real threat to put up the eight-inning, three-baserunner, ten-strikeout game--he'll instead give you the consistent 6 2/3 IP, 7 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 4 K performances. You know the type.
What all my blustering about Miley's resourcefulness adds up to is two things. First, the talent he's showing DIPS-wise looks to be very real--his xFIP of 3.77 isn't likely to fall much. Second, he may have a Matt Cain-esque ability to outperform his xFIP with homer-limiting ability and other Glavine-y tricks. Not to a 2.87 ERA/3.29 FIP extent, but 3.3/3.5? I could see it. That would make him one of the best third starters in baseball, and a not-terrible first-division #2. Not bad for a guy who nobody thought was more than an extra arm in this organization two months ago.
Microsoft Word tells me I just wrote exactly 2,000 words on Wade Miley. Brevity is far from a strong point in my approach to writing, though I would be quite surprised if I exceed that opus with any of the four remaining hurlers.
But I digress. On the eve of the 2011 season, the Minnesota Twins sent right-handed relief prospect Billy Bullock to the Atlanta Braves for the rights to Diamond. The lefty had formerly been the Twins' Rule 5 draft pick, but they didn't want him on their Opening Day roster. Still, they thought enough of him to surrender Bullock for the ability to hang on to him. And that made no sense to me.
You see, Billy Bullock had just struck out 60 batters in 36 2/3 Double-A innings--34.7% of the batters he faced--as a 22-year-old, and he boasted a top-notch fastball/slider combination that made him one of the better relief prospects in baseball. Diamond, on the other hand, was a 24 1/2-year old starter who had just struck out 14.6% of the batters he faced in Triple-A.
If the Twins didn't think enough of an almost-25-year-old pitcher to keep him on their MLB roster, then why in heck would they turn around and deal a solid B-grade prospect just to retain him? There was good reason Diamond was available to them in the Rule 5 (near the back of the Rule 5, even!) in the first place.
The man responsible for that transaction, former Twins GM Bill Smith, is now...well, former Twins GM Bill Smith. And yet, while that move still seems quite poorly conceived from the Minnesota side (the pitching-to-contact-related humor really writes itself, doesn't it?), a year and a half later, it looks like it actually worked. Bullock, whose control was never sharp, has slid backward in consecutive seasons and has barely seen Triple-A, let alone the majors. Diamond initially looked to falter as well, as he posted a 5.56 ERA in 23 Triple-A starts last year. But the Twins called him up anyway down the stretch, and he has a 3.49 ERA in 17 MLB starts, including 2.63 in 11 starts this year.
This all leads to the question at hand, which is "How in hell did this fringy fifth starter candidate suddenly dominate for almost half a season?"
"Fringy" is a good word to describe Scott Diamond's stuff. In 2011, he averaged 88.9 mph on his fastball. This year, he's up to 89.6, and he's capable of touching 92 mph, which isn't too bad for a lefty starter, but certainly isn't good. His fastball is extremely straight, too, thanks to his high overhand arm slot. He throws a short slider in the low 80s that isn't particularly impressive in any way, and comes in on the same horizontal plane as the fastball. He also throws a running mid-80s splitter/changeup that comes in only 5-6 mph slower than his fastball.
Everything Diamond throws is going to be in a tight velocity range. It's not uncommon for him to throw an 88 mph fastball, then an 82 mph slider, then an 85 mph changeup. And he doesn't have a wicked sinker, or a wicked anything, really. His stuff is exactly what we thought it was--mediocre at best. All else equal, it shouldn't work in the major leagues.
But what saves Scott Diamond from eternal damnation to the back of an International League rotation? For one, his command. For another, his mechanics. I suppose his mechanics enable his command, so let's focus on that.
You see, Scott Diamond has a high overhand arm slot. Scott Diamond also has a 58.8% groundball rate.
On its face, that makes a lot of sense. There's always discussion of the "downward plane" a pitcher creates. A high overhand arm slot certainly allows a pitcher to create steep downhill plane, which would seem to correlate with groundball ability. When I was a nuance-ignorant teenager, I thought that was the major factor that influenced groundball rate.
But it isn't. In fact, lower arm slots usually lead to more groundballs, because they impart more sink and run to pitches than a high overhand angle does. And that makes Diamond's worm-killing tendencies rather mysterious.
But the "high arm slot = more vertical distance to plate = more artificial sink = more groundballs" logic isn't necessarily broken. It's just that most high overhand pitchers either a) have a lot of velocity, so they can afford to be power high heater guys, or b) don't get good enough extension to the plate to really create steep downward plane. Take a look at guys like Brian Matusz, Brad Hand, or Josh Collmenter--the ball seems to almost "pop upward" out of the throwing hand upon release with them.
Not so for Diamond, who gets very good extension in his motion by taking a somewhat long stride and tucking his shoulders downward into release. This enables him to get on top of the ball and drive it down in the zone far more than most high overhand pitchers. Furthermore, being a finesse hurler, he understands he can't make mistakes up. Here's his 2012 location chart, which looks a fair bit like Miley's:
So, Diamond is generally throwing the ball in the lower two-thirds of the zone. He's also throwing a lot of strikes--64.6% with his fastball, which is average to a tick above, and a whopping 73.7% with his slider. Here's the slider locations:
Batters swing at the pitch 53.9% of the time, coming up empty at a 15.4% clip (or, two out of every seven swings). While the pitch doesn't have bigtime movement on its own, Diamond's overhand slot adds the illusion of more vertical drop (which prompts many to call it a curveball), and the pitch has a lot of vertical movement separation from his straight fastball. Clearly, batters have a tough time laying off the pitch, though it is his only offering sent into the air more often than it's tapped into the ground.
Diamond's changeup adds a bit of horizontal movement to his game, running away from righties and in to lefties, but he uses it mostly as a chase pitch, throwing it just 9% of the time and getting a strike on less than half of his changeups. He generally keeps it out of the middle of the plate, though, and that's a good thing:
Diamond doesn't use the changeup much to lefties, so he's left being a fastball/slider guy exclusively to them. Since neither pitch boasts much horizontal movement, he has tended to struggle against his fellow southpaws, who have hit .320/.385/.576 against him in the majors. But he's able to neutralize righthanded batters, who are batting just .250/.292/.358 against him this season.
Like Miley, Diamond seems to get what he's doing out there. He gives his pitches some artificial extra sink by, well, throwing them lower than most pitchers do. He throws his fastball and breaking ball for strikes. His delivery has some deception and good extension that makes the ball appear a bit faster than it actually is.
Of course, if Miley doesn't deserve a sub-3.00 ERA, neither does Diamond. But his xFIP is 3.54, and that seems to be a reasonable estimate of where his true talent level lies right now. Like Miley, he's probably getting the most he can out of his stuff, so I wouldn't expect him to get much better than this, but Diamond is a good example of what all these Twins finesse hurlers can do if they find a way to excel at pitching to contact--avoiding walks and generating heaps of grounders.
Chen doesn't have a flashy ERA, but he's rattled off 15 decent starts in the AL East, pitching for a Baltimore team that has neither a cozy park nor a particularly efficient defense, and that counts for a lot when much-more-heralded Eastern imports often are vilified half a season into their careers (see Kosuke Fukudome, Kei Igawa, and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, for three examples).
Chen's a four-pitch guy who brings a four-seam fastball, a slider, change, and slow curve. Unlike Miley and Diamond, he is a flyball pitcher, and his strikezone plot reflects this:
Chen tends to tinker with his fastball velocity. His heater averages 90.5 mph, but he'll dial it down to 87 at times and ratchet it up to 94 at others. It seems like he's living dangerously throwing an average velocity, fairly straight fastball up in the zone so much, but it's worked out thus far, as he has a 67.8% strike rate, 8.5% whiff rate, and more foul balls against the fastball than balls in play.
His tendency to work high is more troubling with the slider, a 79-83 mph offering with some bite. Pitch Type Linear Weights has the slider at -4.18 runs per 100 pitches, compared to +0.80 for the fastball and +1.98 for the changeup. Here's a look at the slider locations:
The pitch doesn't miss any more bats than the fastball does (8.4%), it goes for a strike less often (61.1%), and is put in play on over half of swings. Per Brooks Baseball, Chen's allowed three of his eleven homers off the pitch, even though he only throws it 14% of the time. It also carries his highest proportion of line drives and fly balls against, by a wide margin.
Chen's curveball is a show-me pitch that he'll throw anywhere from 63-74 mph. It lacks bite and is basically just a change-of-pace offering, but it's actually generated nine swinging strikes in 88 pitches. Because Chen has the good sense not to just leave the offering out over the plate or overuse it, it's found a reasonable degree of success.
Chen's changeup is his best pitch, however. It rates as his top offering in terms of both swinging strikes (13.7%) and ground balls (12.8%). Like his fastball, it doesn't really sink, but unlike the heater, it has good running action, and Chen gets the pitch down in the zone more frequently than the fastball or slider.
It should thus come as no surprise that Chen is better against righties (.247/.308/.382) than his fellow lefthanders (.270/.336/.490). His changeup is a far better complementary offering than his slider, and his fastball is not the type of heater that shows a significant platoon split.
Unlike Miley and Diamond, Chen doesn't really seem to have optimized his approach, which is totally understandable, seeing as he's only spent half a year in the country, let alone the league. In particular, he would be better served by pushing the slider down in the zone on a more frequent basis, and perhaps working in the changeup a bit more frequently at the expense of the fastball and slider.
That makes Chen a less impressive pitcher than Miley and Diamond at the moment, which is troubling, as he's a couple of years older. His xFIP is 4.59 and his FIP is 4.27, and it certainly wouldn't be a surprise to see his end-of-season ERA slide back over 4.00.
On the other hand, Chen already has a fastball/changeup combination that works, and it seems that there are improvements he can make, unlike the maxed-out Miley and Diamond. This leaves open the possibility that Chen's true talent in future seasons can move back toward the 3.73 ERA level. Even in the worst-case scenario, he's a useful back-of-the-rotation lefthander grabbed for very little, a feather in the cap of Orioles GM Dan Duquette, whose acquisitions of Chen and Jason Hammel have been a big part of the Orioles' 2012 turnaround.
In the 2011-12 offseason, Jose Quintana had the odd distinction of being a minor league free agent signed to a major league contract. After a solid 2011 as a High-A swingman with the Yankees, he was plucked by the White Sox, who placed him on their 40-man roster. They made him a full-time starter in Double-A, and after just nine starts at that level, he was whisked to the majors. In nine games, including seven starts, he's thrown 49 1/3 innings and posted a sparkling 2.19 ERA. That's a bit of a smaller sample, so is this a fluke?
On the surface, Quintana's stuff is quite similar to Diamond's. He throws a fastball around 90 that has very little movement. His changeup comes in very hard (84-87), has some running action, and is mostly used as a chase pitch.
Where Quintana's stuff differs from Diamond's is with the breaking pitches. Diamond has one short breaking ball in the low 80s; Quintana has two short breaking balls, one in the mid-80s and the other in the upper 70s. You could say he throws two varieties of slider, but neither pitch is really a true slider. More aptly, he throws a slutter and a slurve. The slutter comes in at 84-87 mph as well, but the slurve is 76-79 mph and has some two-plane break, giving Quintana more of a change in speeds and movements than Diamond has.
Of course, that's a good thing. And if Diamond can leverage his mix into 3.5 ERA-caliber performance, then Quintana, armed with all that and more, could theoretically be even better.
Indeed, it is the slower breaking ball that has been Quintana's biggest bat-missing pitch, with a 12.3% whiff rate. He pounds the zone with both the fastball and slutter, which both go for strikes over two-thirds of the time and are a big part of why Quintana has walked a mere 4.7% of opposing batters. Perhaps more surprisingly, the fastball has a swinging strike rate of 10.5%, which is quite odd for a straight pitch that ranges from 87-92 mph. It ties up his fellow lefthanders (13.1%) more than righthanders (9.7%), a suggestion that his stutter-stepping delivery, reminiscent of Gustavo Chacin's, makes his fastball jump on his fellow southpaws. Still, even the 9.7% mark against righthanders is impressive. I'm not sure I see anything in his location chart against them to really ascertain any reasons why his fastball misses so many bats:
But we've already established that a pitcher can be plenty effective without showing anything that looks like a "good" pattern. One thing we can see here is that Quintana's not afraid to come inside on righthanders, as his harder breaking pitch can act like a cutter in on their hands. It's more effective to righties (70.8% strikes, 7.9% whiffs) than lefties (62.3, 6.6), balancing out the fastball and the slower breaking ball, which play better against lefthanders, at least in terms of missing bats. In terms of strike percentage, all three actually are better against righties, which is why he's walked five lefties and four righties despite facing over twice as many of the latter. The effect of all of it is that Quintana is more or less platoon-neutral--he's more of a Three True Outcomes pitcher against his fellow lefties while acting as a groundballing control artist against righties.
There's plenty to like about Quintana's arsenal, the way he's able to vary looks, deceive batters, and throw strikes. Still, he does have the smaller sample, and he hasn't quite gone around the league multiple times yet. Especially as a slower-throwing, deceptive-delivery guy, he could run into some trouble in the second half. The fastball's ability to miss bats doesn't have a really solid reason right now, and it's not a large enough sample to just shrug and say "Hey, it just works."
But Quintana will throw strikes, he's not totally averse to the ground ball (43.2% groundball rate, including 49.1% against righties), and he has enough deception and patterning ability to get a strikeout now and then. He's also 23 years old and in his first year of full-time starting, and he was kicked up to the majors with little upper-minors experience. It's quite impressive that he's put things together this quickly. Long-term, he's probably more of a Paul Maholm than a Mark Buehrle, but he looks to have some staying power in a big league rotation with the chance to be a consistent 2+ WAR/season contributor.
As improbable as Quintana's success is, Blackley takes the cake for the most out-of-nowhere rise on this list. The Aussie made six starts with the 2004 Mariners, posting a 10.04 (!) ERA and 8.97 (!!) FIP. He reappeared with the 2007 Giants and made two starts, with a 7.27 ERA and 6.85 FIP, which are low enough to at least get me to omit the exclamation points.
A 29-year-old with a career 9.35 ERA and 8.48 FIP, not to mention a five-year layoff from his last major league appearance, is far from likely to reappear, let alone thrive, at the major league level. But southpaws get a million chances, and Travis Blackley does throw with his left hand.
When he first came up with those '04 M's, Blackley's fastball averaged 85 mph. In his two starts with the '07 Giants, it was down to 83.5 mph. Now, precious few pitchers can survive throwing that softly, and nobody can while walking 27 batters in 34 2/3 innings, as Blackley did across those two stints.
As recently as 2010, Blackley was still having trouble finding the plate--in a swing role in Triple-A that season, he walked 29 batters in 42 innings. He then disappeared to Korea for the 2011 campaign, as many nondescript sub-fringe pitchers do.
But suddenly in 2012, Blackley reappeared with the Giants' Triple-A team, walking just three batters in 23 1/3 innings while allowing just one earned run. Just like Wade Miley allowing one homer in 80 1/3 CAL innings, allowing one earned run in 23 1/3 Pacific Coast League innings is quite the accomplishment. And just like that, Travis Blackley was back in the majors. He made four nondescript relief appearances for San Francisco, allowing five earned runs in five innings while striking out two and walking two, and the Giants promptly designated him for assignment. It seemed that the comeback story was over.
But then the A's claimed him. Now, I'm an A's fan. If you happen to follow me on Twitter, you probably know I tend to get really tied up in marginal A's moves, with all-caps rage about perceived missteps like DFA'ing Adrian Cardenas, demoting Graham Godfrey, keeping Wes Timmons in the minors, yo-yo-ing Evan Scribner around, etc.
I saw no reason that the A's should be carrying a 29-year-old lefthander with no track record of any success on their 40-man roster, let alone their 25-man roster. It seemed at the time that Billy Beane was just trying to stack the organization with Australians; he had previously claimed Luke Hughes and Rich Thompson off the waiver wire.
And then Travis Blackley went out and pitched in ten games (including seven starts) and posted a 2.79 ERA and 2.68 FIP.
You can't predict baseball.
Blackley's early-career problems, as I said above, stemmed mostly from velocity and control issues. There was probably more wrong with him than that, but frankly, there's no need to delve further, because that's already more than enough to keep a pitcher separated from effectiveness by a wide margin.
Both problems are suddenly gone. Blackley has walked just 11 batters in 53 1/3 innings this season, and he's throwing his fastball consistently at 88-93 mph with a touch of sink and significant armside run. His 2011 slider comes in harder than his 2004-07 fastball--it's averaged 86 mph this year.
Blackley has four pitches that all rate as at least average. There's the fastball, which has average velocity for a lefthanded starter to go with plus movement. There's the slider, an 85-87 mph power breaker that induces swinging strikes at a 15.7% clip and is put on the ground twice as often as in the air. There's the curveball, a 73-79 mph monster with some of the most pronounced vertical break of any pitch in baseball. And there's the changeup, an 80-83 mph pitch with some sink and fade that plays well off the fastball and has induced the best strike rate (68.4%) and whiff rate (19.7%) of the four pitches.
So, that's all good. So is this:
Four good pitches, with significantly different looks, all generally thrown down in the zone. Sign me up for that.
Frankly, it's surprising that Blackley has only a 14.7% strikeout rate given all the movement he generates, and it's also odd that his groundball rate is merely average (44.8%) given the sink on his pitches and the locations in which he places them.
Blackley doesn't throw a ton of strikes--his fastball is at 63.7%, which is solid for a heater but not great, and his breaking pitches are both below 60%. But he gets a first-pitch strike 61.6% of the time, well above the MLB average of 59.7, so that helps him keep the walks down.
Overall, I'd think Blackley's strikeout rate and groundball rate improve going forward, though his walk rate seems a bit fluky and his HR/FB (1.8%!) will obviously regress. Of course, he's playing half his games in Oakland, so the park will help him in that last regard.
All of those corrections should even out, largely--the walks and strikeouts will both increase, but the K/BB should be about the same, and the HR/FB regression and GB% increase will largely cancel each other out. That means Blackley should end up, well...right around his 3.38 ERA, I'd think. He has the best pure stuff of these pitchers, and he should be able to keep pace with the performance of any of them going forward. As an A's fan, I'm very excited to see how this works out long-term. I may have disliked the move when it happened, but that's why Billy Beane runs a team and I don't.