It’s an accepted reality that pitching is hard. Developing said pitching is even harder.
Ryan Williams and Pierce Johnson are at Iowa and are the closest starters the Cubs have to reaching the major leagues. Down in Tennessee, the vaunted pitching staff that manager Mark Johnson has been developing the past two years is changing. That change actually began when Paul Blackburn went on the DL in the summer of 2015.
Although he lacked a specific out pitch, Blackburn had been praised for his pitchability early in his career. In three years in the Cubs organization, he has averaged six strikeouts a game and carries an ERA under 3.40. It has been a solid minor league career, not spectacular, but steady. It looked as though things were trending down for the righty last spring as he struggled in making the jump from low-A to high-A, but then an injury helped him to turn things around.
When Blackburn arrived at Myrtle Beach along with Jen-Ho Tseng, Tyler Skulina, Daury Torrez, Jonathan Martinez, and Duane Underwood, it was thought the sextet would destroy Carolina League hitters. In 2014, they had dominated the Midwest League en route to a title. The problem was, they struggled to adapt. Tseng and Blackburn in particular had a hard time in the first half. Blackburn made ten starts but his ERA was an uncharacteristic 4.66 and opponents were hitting .300 off of him. Just after the All-Star break, some minor injuries put Blackburn on the DL.
Sometimes, a little time on the shelf allows pitchers to adjust physically and/or mentally. Maybe it’s a tweak in their delivery or maybe it’s a better understanding of how to attack hitters. Whatever adjustments Blackburn made in his time out, it was clear they were effective. When he returned, his pitches were sharper, he was more in control, and he had much better command of his fastball, curve, and change.
Blackburn made eight starts in the second half of the season, working his way from 2-3 innings back to 6-7 innings. His ERA for that stretch was a deadly 1.33. In one start, he even struck out an uncharacteristically high nine batters. While it was a small sample size, Blackburn’s second half rep should have a gotten a nice bounce from that impressive stretch.
It did not…at all. FanGraphs described his potential in a lackluster manner.
Blackburn’s stuff still isn’t quite starter material, with his curveball and changeup only showing flashes of being average pitches. Both have good arm action consistent with his fastball release, but neither seem to be sharp enough to get major league hitters out multiple times through an order. At his best he can look like a back-end starter who sequences his pitches well and limits his walk totals.
His command gets out of whack due to changes in his release, leading to hittable pitches up in the zone. He looks more like a middle reliever to me, though hopefully his pitchability develops into true command of his arsenal and he can remain in the rotation.
Good thing prospects don’t follow those previews.
Or maybe they do and Blackburn used it as motivation to come out dealing this spring. His impressive performance at AA Tennessee has moved him to the front of the promotion line to AAA Iowa and one step closer to Chicago. In three starts, Blackburn has given up one run in 18 innings while striking out 10 (a little below average for him). He has limited opponents to a .190 average against him, keeping them off balance by commanding all three pitches.
In the time that I have watched Blackburn pitch live at Kane County and on MiLB.TV for Myrtle Beach, I have always been intrigued by his curveball. I always believed if he got tighter spin and a sharper break, it could be a plus or out pitch for him. Watching him for a bit this past Monday, it was clear the pitch is improved and can still be further developed.
However, Blackburn uses his curve backwards. He gets strikes early in the count with it, forcing hitters to be swinging on what could be strike three. It’s an interesting approach that is working well for him, as he is able to command his fastball down in the zone or in on the hands. It also allows him, when ahead in the count, to throw a pitch out of the zone and get hitters to chase and hit ground balls. Such was the case Monday. While he was dominant in his 86 pitches, only 46 of those pitches were for strikes.
Blackburn still has some work to do, but it’s encouraging to see how he was able to elevate his game since that DL stint. For an organization that has yet to find much success developing arms, he’s certainly one to keep an eye on.