With the Blue Jays rumored to be shifting their focus to the bullpen, Joe Blanton is an oddly familiar wildcard
Tell me if this story sounds familiar. You see, there’s this pitcher. He’s entering his mid-30s and has enjoyed an often underwhelming level of success as a starter across the league, including a few seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. Landing on a new team entering his 2015 free agent season, this pitcher remained fairly quiet until joining the Pittsburgh Pirates just prior to the trade deadline where their success, and open market value, would experience an unexpected jolt.
This isn’t just J.A. Happ‘s story. Joe Blanton’s 2015 saw him break out in limited relief action with the Pirates under pitching guru Ray Searage, leaving him to represent yet another intriguing bullpen option for the Blue Jays. In a different offseason, I might limit the Blanton discussion to an add-on comment elsewhere, but his parallels to Happ’s free agent situation suggest that, at the very least, his recent spike won’t scare off Toronto.
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It looked like Blanton was done in 2014 after pitching just 10.1 innings for AAA Sacramento of the Oakland Athletics organization. He was coming off a horrendous 2013 in which he posted a 2-14 MLB record and 6.04 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels. The Kansas City Royals would throw him a rope in 2015, though, where he made four spot starts and 11 relief appearances before being purchased by the Pirates on July 29th.
His numbers in Kansas City were just fine, with a 3.89 ERA and 8.6 K/9 while showing above-average control. After jumping to Pittsburgh, however, Blanton would get the Happ treatment. His ERA in 21 relief appearances with the Pirates plummeted to 1.57, while his 10.2 K/9 represented the highest total of his career. Like Happ, this wasn’t just by chance.
Blanton began to use his slider and changeup with a much higher frequency, resulting in a slider PITCHf/x value of 8.2, a career best. This increase often came at the expense of his fastball, but across the board, Blanton began spotting his pitches lower in the zone. The Pirates also cut Blanton’s curveball usage to nearly zero, which worked just fine in a bullpen role given the limited success of that pitch in the past.
When discussing the “Searage Magic” with Jason Rollison of Rum Bunter on the Jays Nest Podcast this week, he explained that a primary focus of the Pirate’s approach to rebuilding pitchers is identifying the poor or unnecessary parts of their game and working to eliminate them. This certainly worked with Blanton, just as it did with Happ, so despite the wildcard factor that remains with such a recently-converted bullpen arm, there’s a concrete reason to believe that some of this can carry over. Again, it’s not just luck.
Perhaps that slider can stay hot, but with a fastball topping out around 91 MPH and a K/9 that has only consistently topped 7.0 fairly recently, his profile as a late-inning arm isn’t surefire. The Blue Jays are rumored to be targeting arms with closer’s experience, several of which we’ll be profiling for you tomorrow, and that’s not an area that Blanton will stand out in. He’d fill more of a LaTroy Hawkins role than a Mark Lowe role, I suppose.
Blanton should only fetch a one year deal, though an option year could make sense under the proper circumstances. Expect his annual salary to sit in the $3.5-$4.5 million range, but he’s another difficult case to peg down. If his name does get thrown around the Blue Jays front office, this is a situation where the analytics department would be involved with projecting his pitches over a full season of relief work. By no means should he be a primary target, or even a top-10, but Happ’s path to Toronto and the Blue Jays current bullpen makeup leave the door cracked open wider than it normally would be.