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 Baseball-Reference.com: 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.

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20 comments

  1. Richard

    June 21, 2012 12:26 PM

    Interesting.

    One thing, though: I don’t see how the images depicting his pitch location from his first 8 starts tells us much of anything as compared to the images showing his recent home run balls. When in the count were those pitches thrown? Collette talked about pitch sequence for Shields. Do we have similar information for Blanton?

    Also, I have no idea how to read those vertical release point images. Seems to me Blanton had been talking about some mechanical issues he was addressing prior to his Twins start, whereas last night he spoke of luck.

  2. Bill Baer

    June 21, 2012 12:44 PM

    The reason why I didn’t bother with pitch sequencing for Blanton was because there wasn’t a meaningful difference in any of the counts:

    www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.cgi?id=blantjo01&year=2012&t=p#count

    Yeah, he’s terrible in hitter and even counts and great in pitcher counts, but that doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. There’s also no pattern to his HR’s allowed.

    The release point charts are where his hand was when he released the ball. When players say they are struggling with an arm slot, we would see that reflected in the charts, but Blanton has been very, very consistent this year for all of his pitches except the curve, but the curve hasn’t had much of a role in his recent struggles.

    Here’s an explanation on general interpretation of those charts:

    strikethreemechanics.wordpress.com/2012/02/11/understanding-pitch-fx-release-point-chart/

  3. hk

    June 21, 2012 01:32 PM

    “Blanton isn’t the subject of radio rants or armchair psychoanalysis.”

    You must not have been listening to Glen Macnow, as I (unfortunately) was, at around 1:30.

  4. Bill Baer

    June 21, 2012 01:58 PM

    Oh no, they’re actually going after him? I thought they’d be distracted by the low-hanging Cliff Lee fruit.

  5. Richard

    June 21, 2012 02:09 PM

    btw, it strikes me that, if indeed Blanton’s recent HR foibles are something of a fluke, which I’m prepared to accept, then he is rather better than “an average pitcher”, if average is defined as ~2.0 fWAR, and his current fWAR prorates to roughly 2.0 over a full season, and said fWAR is fueled by a higher-than-expected FIP, because of all the homeruns, and I’m not sure how to finish this run-on sentence so I should probably just stop

  6. Bill Baer

    June 21, 2012 02:18 PM

    You may be right, Richard. Though I wonder if DIPS overvalues him a bit because Blanton has vastly under-performed FIP/xFIP/SIERA in each of the last three years.

    2012 NL averages for SP

    4.00 ERA
    3.90 FIP
    3.90 xFIP
    3.81 SIERA

    Joe Blanton 2012

    5.04 ERA
    4.35 FIP
    3.49 xFIP
    3.38 SIERA

  7. LTG

    June 21, 2012 02:20 PM

    Thanks, BB. Great post.

  8. hk

    June 21, 2012 02:29 PM

    Yes, they’re going after Joe while fawning over Wigginton and Polanco for their hustle. You’re right, you would expect them to fawn over Joe’s 6-6 record, especially when killing Lee for his 0-3 record.

  9. jauer

    June 21, 2012 03:02 PM

    On that note, why wasnt Fontenot pinch running for Wigginton? If the left fielder makes a decent play on Pence’s double, Wigginton is out at home

  10. hk

    June 21, 2012 03:18 PM

    jauer,

    Charlie seems to really struggle with pinch-running strategy. Do you remember when he pinch-ran JMJ for Thome in the 8th inning of a tie game in Baltimore when Thome represented an insurance run? Sure enough, when they didn’t score and the game went extra innings, JMJ was unavailable for defense or to pinch hit later in the game and Thome’s spot in the order came up in the 10th inning before the Phils lost in the bottom of the 10th.

  11. hk

    June 21, 2012 03:33 PM

    The Phils have averaged 4.34 runs per game in 2012 as compared to the 4.40 they averaged last year. Further, they averaged 3.83 runs per game last year before Utley returned (but while Howard was in the lineup) and 4.63 runs per game last year after Utley returned. If the first 70 games of this year and the first 46 games of last year tell us anything, it is how much the offense misses Utley, not Howard.

  12. Frank Reynolds

    June 21, 2012 05:42 PM

    Good comparison. I am getting tired of Joe Blanton giving up homeruns.

  13. Jim

    June 21, 2012 06:22 PM

    Couldn’t weather factor into Joe’s recent troubles with the long ball? Fly outs to the warning track in April often turn into home runs in June. I realize that’s an aphorism, and not to be accepted on this site without data, but there is often some basis in reality for them.

  14. jauer

    June 21, 2012 06:30 PM

    hk,

    I disagree. This team needs Howard more than Utley. Anthony Gargano told me that this lineup is missing a Run Producer.

  15. Richard

    June 21, 2012 09:03 PM

    say what you want about RBI (and you’d be right), but Howard is generally a lot better than average at picking them up when they’re there to be had

  16. LTG

    June 21, 2012 09:08 PM

    He’s also a better than average hitter in all contexts but LOOGY contexts…

  17. hk

    June 22, 2012 05:45 AM

    Richard and LTG,

    Very few would dispute that Howard is an above average hitter or that he can help the lineup if he returns healthy. We’re just disputing the ideas raised in Phil Sheridan’s straw man filled article to which JRFarmer linked above.

  18. Jeff

    June 22, 2012 06:19 AM

    Could Blanton be tipping his pitches?

  19. LTG

    June 22, 2012 07:58 PM

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I was responding to Richard’s weak claim that could be taken to imply that hitting with men in scoring position is a special skill. If he’s above average in general then, of course, he’s above average with men in scoring position. I understand the response to Sheridan.

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