Blackburn bounces back to become a top starter

May 19th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Martin Gallegos' A's Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Skepticism met each of Paul Blackburn's early season starts. That comes with the territory when a pitcher with a 5.74 ERA entering 2022 enjoys that much success.

Well, we’re now approaching June, and guess what? Blackburn is still good. Better than good, actually, as the numbers suggest he’s one of baseball’s best pitchers.

Following his superb outing of one run allowed in 6 2/3 innings against the Angels over the weekend in his seventh start of the year, the right-hander lowered his ERA to 1.67. Entering Wednesday, that was fourth-lowest ERA among American League pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. The three pitchers ahead of him? Nestor Cortes (1.35), Justin Verlander (1.38) and Michael Kopech (1.54).

“It’s awesome,” Blackburn said of his standing among the ERA leaders. “But I didn’t just get here. This didn’t just happen. Everyone here, the information we get and the people that trust and believe in me, all those go into this. When you see your name with Justin Verlander, it’s cool.”

Blackburn stands a good chance to find himself participating in his first All-Star Game if he keeps this up. But how is he doing this? His fastball isn’t exactly blazing, with an average velocity of 91.6 mph. His 29 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings don’t scream dominance. There are other areas, however, where he’s excelling.

Few pitchers are better at keeping the ball on the ground than Blackburn, whose 50.9% ground-ball rate is sixth-highest among AL starters. He’s also displaying supreme control and command of his pitches, with his 1.19 walks per nine innings the fifth-lowest mark in the AL.

A’s pitching coach Scott Emerson has had an up-close view of the Blackburn journey. From Blackburn’s promising 2017 rookie year to struggles with injuries and frequent trips up and down from the Minors over the past few years, Emerson knows how hard the pitcher has worked to stabilize himself as a Major Leaguer. From his view, Emerson points to one specific pitch as a key to Blackburn’s success.

“His ability to use his changeup more,” Emerson said. “He’s used his changeup in great opportunities. When he first came up, I would call him a cutter guy. He just constantly threw a lot of cutters and thought that, maybe since his fastball wasn’t hard velocity, he would throw a lot of cutters.

“We’ve kind of toned that down and use that more as an element of surprise. He’s worked off his fastball. Not saying he uses his fastball a lot, but he’s got that ability to pinpoint his fastball, use his changeup and have his cutter and curveball be that surprise pitch. It’s done wonders for him.”

The numbers back up Emerson. Blackburn has thrown his changeup 90 times this season. Prior to 2022, the most changeups he had thrown in a single season was 97 in 2021. Overall, Blackburn has utilized his six pitches pretty evenly, showing off a curveball that is practically unhittable -- opposing batters are 1-for-22 with nine strikeouts against his curve.

You can’t help but draw parallels between the rise of Blackburn and Chris Bassitt, who also had a rocky path before breaking out as an All-Star with Oakland last season. Blackburn will have to sustain this type of pitching for a whole season, but the positive signs continue to show up.

“With Bass, it took him a long time,” Emerson said. “Almost until 2019, and we had him up here in 2015. Some guys just have to breathe. You get up here, and every start counts and if you don’t pitch good, you get optioned. After 50 or 60 starts, you start to realize who you are and what you can do in the big leagues.

“When you get 10 or 11 starts a year, you’re really not settling in. You’re not given that full opportunity. You have to earn it. And the way Paul is pitching, he’s pitching like he belongs.”