Joe Blanton and the James Shields Parallel

Phillies fans are familiar with James Shields as he was the only Rays starter to contribute to a victory in the 2008 World Series. In Game 2, Shields threw five and two-thirds scoreless and the Rays went on to win 4-2. Shields would earn the moniker “Big Game James” although his post-season ERA has since inflated to 4.98. Now 30 years old, Shields has seen his share of ups and downs, having posted a 5.18 ERA in 2010 and a 2.82 ERA last year while leading the league in complete games and shut-outs.

Shields has been a lightning rod for discussion among Rays fans, writers, and talk show hosts alike. Jason Collette, of DRays Bay and Baseball Prospectus, recalled that fans did not want Shields to be given the privilege of starting a post-season game against the Texas Rangers. Manager Joe Maddon gave him the nod anyway, but Shields allowed four runs in four and one-third innings. Collette remembered fans showering the right-hander with boos as he exited the game. Those in the Rays media focused only on the results rather than the underlying peripherals, writing him off entirely.

This is relevant because it seems like Joe Blanton is experiencing some of the same potentially temporary woes as Shields. A query of Baseball Reference’s Play Index yields only the two among ERA-qualified pitchers since 1993 who have posted an ERA+ under 80, a strikeout-to-walk ratio above 3.0, and a HR/9 above 1.5.

Player ERA+ SO/BB HR/9 Year Age Tm
James Shields 75 3.67 1.50 2010 28 TBR
Joe Blanton 78 6.17 1.68 2012 31 PHI
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/21/2012.

Blanton, of course, has been plagued by home runs recently. In his first eight starts, he allowed just two in 48.2 innings. In his last seven starts, he has allowed 15 in 42.1 innings. Unlike Shields, though, Blanton isn’t the subject of radio rants or armchair psychoanalysis because the expectations are lower. He is the 31-year-old #5 starter with a career 4.37 ERA.

Still, however, there is a parallel. It is historically unusual for a pitcher to have such great peripherals but still get hit extremely hard the way Blanton has and the way Shields did back in 2010. Collette pointed out that pitch sequencing played a big role in Shields’ performances two years ago. He said:

[Shields was] overusing his cutter, got too predictable when he fell behind in the count, and his curveball was a show-me pitch in 2010 and not the weapon it is now. He was heaving FB/CH then with [the cutter] as his third pitch usage wise and curves something he flashed 0-0, 0-1 and that’s it. He would tend to try to front door the cutter rather than backdoor is as he does now and if he got around on it, boom.

Of the 717 pitches Shields threw in a hitter’s count (1-0, 2-0, 3-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2) in 2010, 535 were fastballs (75%). Opposing hitters posted a staggering .425 wOBA in a hitter’s count and .453 against fastballs specifically in a hitter’s count. The following year, fastballs accounted for 470 of the 773 pitches (61%) Shields threw in hitter’s counts. Additionally, in 2010, Shields allowed 11 home runs on the first pitch. As of today, Shields has allowed 35 in his career, so nearly one-third of them came in 2010 alone. All 11 of those home runs were on fastballs. Between 2011-12, batters hit 17 of 36 home runs (all counts) on fastballs.

Tommy Rancel of ESPN Florida also pointed out that, in the years since, Shields has worked on his mechanics, including biomechanics as well as focusing on pitch location, throwing lower in the zone now than he had in 2010.

Blanton, on the other hand, does not attribute his recent woes to mechanics at all. Per David Hale on May 29:

Joe Blanton is lost.

On video, there is no difference. He wind-up, his grip, his delivery – he sees no difference between what he’s doing now and the mechanics that worked so well through the first six weeks of the season.

But something is wrong, and anyone who has witnessed one of Blanton’s last three starts is acutely aware.

Nine of the 17 home runs Blanton has allowed have come on fastballs, so batters are picking up his change-up and slider as well. And, unlike Shields, Blanton doesn’t struggle specifically on the first pitch, although his first pitches haven’t exactly been outstanding (.474 wOBA allowed). Blanton’s results in count types:

  • Hitter ahead: .396 wOBA (44% fastballs)
  • Even count: .438 wOBA (49% fastballs)
  • Pitcher ahead: .224 wOBA (35% fastballs)

Obviously, location is an issue. Here’s a look at pitch location on all of the home runs he has allowed this season:

But why now, rather than all season long? Blanton hasn’t varied his location when you compare his recent stretch of batting practice starts to the eight that preceded it.

One possibility is that it is just random. Pitchers have allowed home runs in bunches. Blanton’s current streak of eight games with at least one home run allowed is only the fourth-longest in the last two years alone. Phil Hughes recently ended a stretch of 12 consecutive starts; Brian Matusz and Jeremy Bonderman had 11 consecutive such starts in 2011 and ’10, respectively; and Joe Saunders, Tim Wakefield, and Brian Bannister allowed homers in nine straight in 2010.

It isn’t even out of character for Blanton himself. Between May 15 and June 24, 2010, he allowed 12 home runs in eight starts spanning 48 innings with a 2.5 K/BB. In 2009, Blanton had nine starts in which he allowed two or more homers. Over his career, Blanton has allowed one homer for every 10 fly balls (10%). That rate is up to 17% this year, but given the small sample, it isn’t an incredible jump considering that, since coming to the Phillies, his HR/FB rate has actually been around 13-14%.

If Blanton himself and his team aren’t pointing to any non-statistical reasons for his recent woes, then I am even more comfortable in labeling his recent seven starts as a fluke. Teams, especially the Phillies, are quick to explain away their players’ faults by citing mechanics, for instance, but since they are not, it seems as if even the Phillies themselves are not concerned. And even if the Phillies did cite something like arm slot, it wouldn’t hold up. Per Brooks Baseball, here is a look at Blanton’s vertical and horizontal release points over the years:

Vertical Release Point

Horizontal Release Point

As mentioned above, Blanton’s peripherals have been quite spectacular: his 6.17 K/BB is second-best in the Majors behind Colby Lewis of the Texas Rangers (7.00). Blanton’s walk rate is also second-lowest behind Lewis, and his strikeout rate is at the league average (19%). Even in his last eight starts in which he allowed those 15 home runs, Blanton’s strikeout and walk numbers have been spectacular (39 K, 5 BB), even better than in his first seven starts (2 HR; 35 K, 7 BB).

Unlike Shields, there may not be any more to this story than chaos in the universe. That, more than anything, should make Phillies fans feel better about Blanton going forward. The Phillies are no longer baseball’s superpower when it comes to starting pitching (3.89 starters’ ERA), but they can make progress in that area as Blanton regresses towards the mean and as Roy Halladay makes progress recovering from his strained right latissimus dorsi. For Blanton, the key should simply be getting ahead of hitters and otherwise being himself — an average pitcher.

Thanks to @JasonCollette and @TRancel for providing perspective as Rays analysts.