Updated: July 5th, 2010 11:02pm
Mackey: Taking a closer look at Nick Blackburn's thin margin for error

Mackey: Taking a closer look at Nick Blackburn's thin margin for error

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by Phil Mackey

Nick Blackburn threw six solid innings against the Rays on Sunday, but the story ultimately wound up having a similar ending to his other June starts, thanks to a five-run seventh that pushed the right-hander's ERA back to 6.00 for the season.

Forget whether manager Ron Gardenhire should or shouldn't have inserted Jesse Crain or Brian Duensing in to face Evan Longoria with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh -- a crucial at-bat with the Twins still trailing only 3-1.

Gardenhire said he wanted a groundball, and Blackburn induces more of them than Crain, who likely would have been summoned to set up a righty vs. righty situation.

"He's a sinker-baller, and you want to get a double play," Gardenhire said about sticking with Blackburn. "That's why you walk the bases loaded."

Well, Blackburn induced a groundball -- a hard one that skipped into centerfield for a two-run single, breaking the game open. It was almost fitting for a pitcher who can't seem to catch a break these days.

Blackburn's final line included seven runs (four earned), nine hits, and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He also induced 15 groundballs to 10 fly balls, and referred multiple times during his post-game interview to those pesky grounders that snuck through the infield for base hits.

"Unfortunately, in the seventh inning just kind of snowballed," Blackburn said. "I still was getting groundballs, but they just weren't at anybody at the time."

It's also tough when Blackburn is out on the mound and Michael Cuddyer is the third baseman instead of Nick Punto. The difference defensively is about as drastic as any pair in baseball.

We all tend to think of Blackburn as a groundball pitcher, which makes sense, obviously, because he throws sinkers and induces more groundballs than fly balls. Guys like Scott Baker, and more specifically Kevin Slowey, are extreme fly ball pitchers.

So why do we put so much emphasis on groundballs? More importantly, why do we put so much emphasis on Blackburn's groundballs?

Because groundballs are generally better for pitchers. They are converted for outs at a high rate, and groundballs that sneak through the infield usually result in singles, which cause minimal damage, relatively speaking. Fly balls lead to home runs, doubles, and headaches.

In Blackburn's case, groundballs are his only friends. He doesn't really have any other eye-popping skill sets, other than solid control, which has dropped off this season (his 2.5 walks per nine innings is the highest rate of his career).

He doesn't have overpowering stuff, doesn't strike anybody out (second-lowest K-rate in MLB since 2007), doesn't limit home runs (15 this season, 25 last year), and doesn't make people swing and miss (5 percent, which is the lowest rate in baseball).

Because of this, we look for Blackburn's best quality -- groundballs -- and magnify it. In some cases, we probably glorify it.

But labeling Blackburn as a groundball pitcher is like saying Brendan Harris is good against lefties. In reality, Harris is just OK against lefties. But because he's bad against righties and doesn't field particularly well, his numbers against lefties stand out more by default.

The same is true regarding Blackburn and groundballs.

Yes, Blackburn is a groundball pitcher, but check out these comparisons:

In 2008, Brandon Webb led the majors with a 64 percent groundball rate, and 37 starting pitchers had better groundball rates than Blackburn's 44.9 percent.

In 2009, Joel Piniero led the majors with a 60.5 percent groundball rate, and 26 starters posted better rates than Blackburn's 45.8 percent.

This season, Blackburn has actually posted the best groundball rate of his career -- 47.9 percent. But it still ranks him behind 34 other starters, including Tim Hudson's league-leading 67.8 percent.

The point here isn't to knock Blackburn, bur rather to put his skill sets into context. His margin for error on the mound is razor thin, and it always has been, even when he was posting respectable ERAs of 4.03 and 4.05 over the last two seasons.

When Blackburn allows fly balls, trouble lurks. Even when he does induce groundballs -- such as against Longoria -- there are no guarantees. If he induces 15 groundballs in a game, there's a decent chance five of them sneak through for hits.

It's different for a guy like Francisco Liriano, who has enough "stuff" to get away with mistakes. Baker, believe it or not, can get away with mistakes too, because he has shown the ability to blow hitters away with that high fastball.

What we're seeing this year so far with Blackburn and his 6.00 ERA is what happens when the stars don't properly align for a pitcher with a thin margin for error.

He lives and dies by the batted ball, and so far the batted ball is winning.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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