Joe Blanton's Revival as a Reliever Makes Him an Attractive Free-Agent Option
The last two seasons have been a revolution in Joe Blanton's career. After 10 years of being a solid, albeit average, starting pitcher with eight of his 12 career seasons split between the Philadelphia Phillies and Oakland Athletics, Blanton was facing retirement after struggling mightily from 2010 to 2013 and missing the 2014 season entirely.
However, the Kansas City Royals took a chance on Blanton in 2015 and put him in the bullpen, where he proved to be an asset. He really came into his own and revitalized his career after a midseason trade sent him to the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second half of 2015. Blanton took the unfamiliar role in the bullpen and ran with it.
He followed up his big half-season with Pittsburgh with an equally impressive 2016 campaign in his second career stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, putting together a solid season.
Now a free agent, can Blanton be a useful addition for a team needing bullpen help?
Let's Get Started
Blanton was an uninspiring starting pitcher before his role change. He made his debut in 2004, although he only saw action in three games throughout the season. His real rookie season -- and a solid rookie season at that -- came with the Athletics in 2005, a campaign which him post a 124 ERA+, 12-12 record, 20% strikeout rate (a rate he would not top until 2012) and 6.7% walk rate. (A 124 ERA+ means the league ERA was 24% higher than Blanton's.)
However, after placing sixth in the rookie of the year vote, Blanton continuously regressed during his career. There were some alarming signals in that season which would fuel the regression, most notably in his 4.58 xFIP, which translates to a 106 xFIP-; he was a bit lucky to have as good of an ERA as he did. (For xFIP-, a league-average pitcher would rate out at 100.)
He has only topped a 100 ERA+ twice since then, earning a 108 ERA+ in 2005 with the Athletics and a 104 ERA+ in 2009 with the Phillies. In his nine seasons as a full-time starter, he posted seven seasons with a sub-100 ERA+. In those same nine seasons, he only posted a FIP- under 100 four times.
However, on two occasions, Blanton had rather unlucky seasons. In 2006, he posted a FIP- of 92 but an ERA+ of 92, as well. In 2012, he had a 99 FIP- but an ERA+ of 84. He was a better pitcher than his ERA showed on both occasions (he also did this in 2011, but he only appeared in 11 games before being sidelined with a shoulder impingement, so it is difficult to project his entire season).
It is important to note that xFIP is very kind to Blanton; he only had an xFIP- over 100 three times in his nine years as a starter, which is likely attributed to his ability to keep the ball in the ballpark. Be that as it may, he still showed signs of regression. While Blanton gave up plenty of deserved runs throughout his career, he did not give up many home runs, which is why FIP and xFIP are both important in trying to explain Blanton's career.
However, his 2013 season -- the one which nearly forced him into retirement -- was a disaster. He went 2-14 with the Los Angeles Angels, posting a 62 ERA+, 134 FIP-, a career high 1.61 WHIP and a 17.7% strikeout rate. It is easy to see why he considered calling it a career after the season, actually retiring before eventually coming back.
His biggest calling card in his pre-reliever career was his reliability. He only had the one major injury (in 2011), and Blanton made at least 20 starts in every other season, even his abysmal 2013. Innings eaters are valuable commodities.
What a Relief
After leaving baseball in 2014, he decided on a comeback and was signed by the Royals for 2015. He made 11 relief appearances and four starts for Kansas City, posting a respectable 108 ERA+, 90 FIP- and 79 xFIP-. After being acquired by the Pirates via trade, he took off.
With the Bucs, Blanton posted a 249 ERA+, 56 FIP- and 71 xFIP- in the second half of 2015, which was a defining stretch for him. His 2.56 FIP was good for 21st among all relievers in 2015, and his 2.84 xFIP was 20th among all relievers that season. Blanton had gone from a middling starter to a valuable reliever.
That production earned him a $4 million contract with the Dodgers in 2016, where he posted a 158 ERA+ and 82 FIP-. His xFIP- wasn't as pretty, coming in at 101, which is still good but not as good as the rest of his numbers. The main reasons behind the more pedestrian xFIP- were his walks (8.3% walk rate) and fly-ball rate (45.6%), both of which were career-worst clips. Fly balls and walks are weighted heavily in xFIP, and they hurt Blanton in this case.
On the bright side, Blanton had a 3.57 SIERA, which is significantly better the league average -- counting all pitchers -- of 4.11 for the 2016 season. He was a very good reliever, especially for his salary.
Here's a look at his career totals as a reliever and a starter.
Blanton has been better as a reliever in every category with the exception of walk rate. Those aren't surprising or atypical results for a starter moving to the bullpen, but Blanton's numbers are pretty darn solid nonetheless.
Despite the fact that he is going into the middle of January unemployed, Blanton would be a nice bullpen arm for anyone -- even if he wants to stay on the West Coast.
The teams reportedly most interested in Blanton are two of his former clubs -- the Dodgers and Pirates -- as well as the Colorado Rockies. With the increased importance teams are placing on relievers over the past few years, don't expect Blanton to be unemployed for too much longer.