Nick Blackburn turns to video, Pitch F/X in effort to fix mechanics
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The 2012 season has been a nightmare for Minnesota Twins right-hander Nick Blackburn, who will make his return to the rotation in Kansas City on Friday.
Blackburn -- in the third year of a four-year, $14 million contract -- was demoted to Triple-A Rochester earlier this month after seeing his ERA jump up over 8.00. Blackburn was, without much doubt, the worst starting pitcher on the worst staff in the American League.
In an effort to peel himself off the ground, Blackburn -- with help from two pitching coaches -- turned to video and Pitch F/X charts to help pinpoint specific flaws.
For starters, Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson had Blackburn and Rochester pitching coach Bobby Cuellar look at tape from the 2009 season when Blackburn posted a 4.03 ERA over 205 2/3 innings.
"One thing that I used to be able to do in '08 and '09, and even parts of 2010, was in to lefties throwing a sinker that would come back and freeze them," Blackburn said. "I haven't been able to do that all year. That has to do with (the fact that) the movement wasn't the same. I think we're gradually getting back to that. ...
"(Cuellar) picked up on a couple things here and there that he thought would be pretty significant changes for me. One of those things is just keeping my front side quiet. I think so far this season, especially after the injuries, I wasn't getting extension and all that stuff -- that was one thing we were working on. And I was kind of trying to jump my way into that.
"He just watched about 10 minutes of the (2009) tape, and he realized what I was doing; My front side was keeping way more calm, and not as much movement. He thought it would help if I kept all that under control. It would help keep my hand under control also, and it would basically allow my pitches to do what they naturally should do, as opposed to trying to force them into anything."
By looking at Pitch F/X charts, along with the videos, Blackburn, Anderson and Cueller also found that the right-hander's release point is lower this year than it was when he was a 200-inning workhorse in 2009.
In his two starts for Rochester, Blackburn found -- with help from the mechanical tweaks -- that his command and movement were both improved.
"Now when I'm missing with pitches I'm missing in good locations, as opposed to right over the middle of the plate," Blackburn said. "It just seems more natural for me than what I was doing earlier in the season the whole time I was struggling. ...
"I'm not saying it's going to be the perfect answer and I'm going to come out like nothing happened, but I went down there and I threw in those two games and everything felt the way it was supposed to."
Even though Blackburn says he believes he is on the right path to a solution, there is plenty of reason for skepticism. Blackburn has seemingly battled injury and mechanical issues for much of the past two seasons, and over the past calendar year it's hard to find a pitcher who has been hit harder.
In 24 starts since June 27, 2011 (114 2/3 innings), Blackburn owns a 7.61 ERA with 173 hits allowed, 22 home runs given up, 49 walks and only 55 strikeouts.
"Even my wife was telling me yesterday, she's like, 'You went down there and I could tell you were completely lost. You had no idea what you were doing pitching,'" Blackburn said. "For my wife to tell me that...
"And she was right. I've been working on so much that at one point I was like, 'I don't know what to do anymore.' It was nice to be able to go down there and back off and simplify everything, and get back to something that immediately felt natural to me."