2015 was a year of extremes for Paul Blackburn. He began the year at high A Myrtle Beach after coming off a very good year at low A Kane County in 2014. The first half of 2015 saw Blackburn in a funk. In the middle of May, he had a 5.00 ERA, something he’d never come close to as a Cub. In fact, it had always been under 4.00. It was a very different experience for the then young 21-year-old right-handed pitcher. For the first time in his tenure, times were tough, but he came out the other side by pitching and adjusting to the competition.
After a month long DL stint ended in the middle of July of 2016, Blackburn had to work his way back into shape and the rotation. Over the course of the next eight starts, Blackburn compiled a 1.31 ERA in 41.1 innings. He struck out 29 and had a WHIP of 0.9. The Blackburn after the DL was nowhere near Blackburn before the DL. Adjustments had been made – his sinking fastball had more bite, and his curve was sharper. When it comes to 2016, Blackburn will continue to have to make adjustments. He used all three of his pitches at various counts; he didn’t rely on any one pitch at any one time. In other words, he kept the hitters guessing on what was coming.
Blackburn was drafted in the compensation round A in the 2012 draft right out of high school in Brentwood, California. He made his career debut in the Arizona Rookie League in 2012. Coming out of the draft, MLB.com’s Jonathon Mayo said the following about Blackburn’s ability:
The NoCal high schooler has a good fastball that hits 92 mph consistently and will touch a tick or two higher on the radar gun at times. His two secondary offerings – a curve and a changeup – both have the chance to be very effective pitches. He’s generally around the strike zone and thanks to his athleticism and sound delivery, his command should only improve with experience.
The Arizona State recruit has some projectability, meaning his already pretty good stuff has room to get even better. That should get him off the board early enough to keep him from heading to Arizona.
Blackburn did well in rookie league in 2012 and then again in 2013 at short season Boise. He doesn’t do anything that really catches your eye in the box score or stat sheet. You really have to watch him work to appreciate how he attacks and pitches hitters. After two years of success, MLB.com described Blackburn before the 2014 season as one of the top 30 Cubs prospects.
In some ways, Blackburn is a college arm stuck in a high schooler’s body. He has a really advanced feel for a prepster. He has a three-pitch mix that won’t wow you in terms of pure stuff, but it’s solid average across the board. Both his changeup and perhaps even his curve have the chance to be better than average in the future. His fastball has a lot of sink and will sit in the 90-93 mph range. He has very good command, showing the ability to locate and move the ball around the zone.
One of Blackburn’s earliest proponents was John Arguello of Cubs Den. One reason John was so high on Paul Blackburn early on was a conversation with then Minor League Pitching Coordinator Derek Johnson. John wrote:
It wasn’t so much anything Johnson said, but it seemed to me that even with his laid back drawl, he couldn’t disguise the excitement in his voice. He described Blackburn as an exception to the general rule in that he was a kid with a great arm who could throw hard – but who already had naturally advanced pitching skills. My personal interpretation? He thinks the kid is special.
While John played up Blackburn’s pitching ability skills, Blackburn kept rolling right along. It did not seem he was overpowering people, but he was getting the job done. When you look at his K/9 ratio, it was 7.4 at Boise, 5.80 at Kane County, and 6.3 at Myrtle Beach – those are solid numbers. There is more here than meets the eye.
As Blackburn makes the jump to AA, his greatest asset is his ability to pitch, to keep hitters off-balance. However, he doesn’t have one specific out pitch. Nonetheless, I like his curve a lot and he can throw it for a strike at any count from 0-0 to 3-2.
Here is how I see things for 2016.
- I like the fact that his second half of 2015 was so dominant and he made adjustments to how he pitched.
- Blackburn is going to have to rely more on command and guile. I think Blackburn can succeed, given enough time, at the AA level.
- To be quite honest, I’m excited to see what he can do and what adjustments he makes at this level. He currently projects as a back end starter or a middle reliever.
- I don’t like to make comps between one player and another because I think each player is unique, but there’s a little bit of Kyle Hendricks in Blackburn. Blackburn might have enough for more giddyup on his fastball, while Hendricks has more bite on his offspeed stuff.
- Sometimes I wonder if Blackburn needs a fourth pitch like a cutter. He could really do some damage with that kind of four pitch repertoire as well as he commands his current pitches and sets hitters up.
- I think he ranks at the top of pitching prospects with Brad Markey when it comes to attacking the zone and setting hitters up.
- Each year his walk % is lower than the year before. Last year it was 5.9% or he only walked 22 hitters in in 89.2 innings last year. That’s not bad.
I am hopeful for him. There’s a bit of uncertainty of how he will do this year. He is one of the players you just can’t judge how he will do based on a radar gun. You have to let him do his thing, which is just to pitch.