The Hidden Value of Joe Blanton

Here's a little piece I wrote on Joe Blanton on my fledgling new blog, found here:

Tell me what you think!  Kudos to the editors of the Phillies Annual 2011 magazine -- definitely provided some pertinent information for this article (feeble footnote reference at the bottom).

Remember this guy?

The "fifth day" in 2010 indicated a mound appearance by Phillies staff ace Roy Halladay.  In 2011, it's a derogatory term for whatever inferior being bridges the gap from the back to the front of the Phillies' quartet of aces.  And since Joe Blanton arrived in Phillies Wonderland in July 2008, he's gone from key cog in the rotation and postseason hero to a spare part.  The hysteria surrounding the Greatest Rotation Yet to Play a Game has overshadowed both Joe's ability and value to the team, causing many to think a quality fifth starter is essentially unnecessary.  Well, here's a look at why these notions are misguided:

Blanton's a much better pitcher than Kyle Kendrick
Kyle Kendrick is basically the team's "sixth starter," long-relief pitcher, and presumed replacement in the rotation if Blanton is traded.  Contrary to most fans' current feelings, however, he's significantly worse than Blanton in several regards.  Stuff-wise, both pitchers seem to feature very similar pitching arsenals.  Both pitchers feature 4-seam and 2-seam fastballs that average about 90 mph, with Kendrick's 2-seamer actually being the best of either pitcher's fastballs as a combination of velocity and sharp break.  Blanton and Kendrick also throw cutters, sliders, and changeups with very similar velocities, with Kendrick throwing a harder slider and Blanton a harder cutter.

The difference between the two lies in their reliance on pitch-types.  According to Fangraphs, Kendrick threw his 2-seamer over 56% of the time in 2010, while throwing 21% cutters, 16% changeups and about 3% each of 4-seam fastballs and sliders.  Blanton's tendencies, however, are much more varied.  The 2-seamer comprised only about 29% of his pitches, followed by 17% of 4-seam fastballs, 16% changeups, 14% sliders, 13.5% cutters, and 9% curveballs, a pitch Kendrick does not throw.  Kendrick thus reduces himself to opposing hitters as a fastball-changeup pitcher who relies primarily on his 2-seamer.  He also lacks a true breaking-ball pitch, using his slider very sparingly and making it seem awfully similar to his "cutter" when he throws it (his slider averaged 86.7 mph while the "cutter" averaged 86.3 mph).  Blanton on the other hand throws a 4-seamer, cutter, slider and changeup almost equally while adding a curveball to the mix.  The bottom line?  Blanton changes speeds, features two breaking pitches, throws 5-6 legitimately different pitches, and relies on no single pitch more than 1/3 of the time.  Forget Kendrick being a better ground-ball pitcher -- if batters have a good idea of what's coming, it's much harder to be successful.

Durability and Dependability.  

If there's one thing you can count on from Joe Blanton, it's 30+ starts and close to 200 innings.  Blanton hit the disabled list early in 2010 with an oblique injury, but in his 6 full seasons in the majors, that was the first DL stint in his career (and he still made 28 starts).  Oblique injuries can be hard to recover from, but Blanton rebounded down the stretch in 2010 with a 3.48 second-half ERA and 7.8 strikeouts per 9 innings, both much better than his career averages (4.30 ERA, 5.82 K/9).*  Blanton's never going to warrant consideration as a top-flight starter, but he'll never be considered an also-ran.  He stays healthy and keeps his team in the game.  As a seasoned veteran with postseason experience, he knows how to produce for an entire season and pitch well in high-intensity pennant races and postseason runs -- fans already seem to have forgotten Blanton's 4-0 regular season and 2-0 postseason record on the 2008 championship team.  Like Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton is a known commodity in the Phillies' rotation.  Whereas many fifth starters are either veterans on the downsides of their careers or blossoming yet unpredictable young pitchers, the Phillies have a true asset in Blanton's relative youth and predictability. 

Joe Blanton is an established major-league pitcher in the prime of his career.  He doesn't rely on overpowering stuff and therefore won't need to drastically change his pitching style as he gets older.  There's nothing that suggests Blanton will suddenly become injury-prone or suffer a drop-off in productivity, and he's been a consistent performer at the major-league level.  The trade market for right-handed bats with power is rather weak.  And at last count, major-league pitching rotations contain 5 starters.  In a year which has "we're going for it" written all over it in Philadelphia, the Phillies would be foolish to think the addition of Cliff Lee suddenly makes their fifth starter expendable.  Pitching wins ballgames, and depth of pitching wins championships.  Even on the fifth day.

*Maple Street Press Phillies Annual 2011, p. 24.

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