Mackey: If Blackburn can't throw 200 innings, 'I'm not offering a lot'
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Two years ago Wednesday, the Minnesota Twins signed Nick Blackburn to a four-year, $14 million contract extension -- a deal that will pay him $4.75 million this year, and $5.5 million in 2013.
At the time, Blackburn was coming off two seasons in which he averaged 200 innings, a 4.04 ERA and only 40 free passes issued. His peripheral numbers -- low strikeout numbers and a middle-of-the-pack groundball rate, at the time -- indicated some regression was likely, but $4-5 million per year for an innings-eater with an ERA in the low-4.00 range is a bargain.
Blackburn's main goal this season, he says, is to pitch 200 innings -- a feat he hasn't accomplished since before signing the extension.
"If I can't get to 200 innings, I'm not offering a whole lot," Blackburn said after throwing two scoreless innings in a 'B' game against the Red Sox on Wednesday. "I'm not going to go out there and strike a lot of guys out. I'm not a power pitcher. I've got to get to where I'm eating up some innings. Getting back up around the 200 area, 200-plus - I don't necessarily want to settle for 190. That'll be a big goal for me. I think that's how it's always going to be my entire career. ...
"There's a lot of guys that say, 'I want 17 wins or 15 wins this year.' I'm more geared for the 200 innings, because that usually means I'm staying in a lot of games and going seven deep quite a bit. That's my biggest goal right now, other than obviously staying healthy."
Wednesday's 'B' game was Blackburn's unofficial spring debut ('B' games don't count in Grapefruit League play). The right-hander threw 29 pitches (19 strikes, 8 looking, 4 swinging, 3 fouls), allowed two hits, walked nobody, and of the four batted balls, three were grounders. The only fly ball was a blooper by Mauro Gomez that fell between shortstop Jamey Carroll and left fielder Trevor Plouffe for a double.
The results were favorable, even if Boston's lineup had only two players with uniform numbers under 70 -- one of them being Jason Repko -- and Blackburn is pleased with how his surgically-repaired forearm has reacted so far.
"It's pretty sharp right now," he said about the movement on his pitches. "It's a good indication with the swings they were getting. ... The small adjustments I made have really helped with more movement so far. It's been a good spring for that."
The main adjustment Blackburn refers to is repositioning himself from the first-base side of the rubber to the middle, which he says will help hide the ball better from right-handed batters.
"It looks like the ball now -- especially for a righty -- the ball is coming out of their hip," he said. "More deception for righties for sure but also for lefties when I'm throwing that sinker into them as opposed to starting at their hip and coming back over the middle. Now it's coming towards them a little bit, so its creating a little bit of deception. ...
"I talked to (pitching coach Rick Anderson) before I even attempted this this offseason, just asked and it was something that was in my mind last year. He said that all the old-school pitchers pitched from the third base side and I wouldn't mind eventually being there, but to make that kind of adjustment usually is a huge change.
As Blackburn also pointed out, moving eight inches one way or the other may not seem like it would make much of a difference, but repositioning on the rubber actually changes angles drastically.
Blackburn also credits the mound move with taking pressure off his forearm, which bothered him last season, and elbow, which required surgery to remove bone spurs in 2010.
"I've been talking to hitters throughout spring training also. Somebody will stand in and I'll ask them if it looks like there's more deception there as opposed if I was standing all the way over. The general answer is for righties it looks like its coming out behind them. That's just something else that's going to give them a little more doubt.''
Blackburn started last season by posting a 3.15 ERA through June 22, and even after some struggles his ERA was below 4.00 almost through the end of July. But, similar to what happened in 2010, a combination of inconsistency and arm issues led to his downfall.
"I mean, even if it hasn't been huge injuries it's always been something that is nagging enough to where you don't go out there and feel 100 percent or even if it's something between starts or you'll find during starts," Blackburn said. "If you've got something going on that's a little a bit of a distraction to you it's going to affect you in the end but, like I said I haven't, even in the past few years, haven't been in a lot of pain even though I've had surgeries. It's kind of something that has been ongoing, just more of a nuisance than anything. ...
"I think just being completely healthy and hopefully the adjustments I've made will help me get back to what I used to be in '08 or '09."
People tend to forget that Blackburn oftentimes has been an innings-eating, groundball inducing, reliable fourth starter.
At other times he's been the most hittable pitcher in baseball.
Which will it be this year?