The Angels at one point recently had a threadbare starting rotation, but it was considered pretty likely they’d be able to re-sign Zack Greinke. The Angels, since then, have all but dropped out on Zack Greinke, and added Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. Hanson cost the Angels Jordan Walden. Blanton cost the Angels two years and $15 million. The Angels aren’t necessarily done, but instead of having four starters they’re sitting on six, and it looks like the rotation isn’t going to add a high-profile arm. They might have to make do with what they have, and because they now have Joe Blanton, we should probably talk about him.
Last year, over 30 starts, Blanton posted a 4.71 ERA. That was his lowest ERA since 2009. He’s nearly 32 years old, he can’t stop coughing up dingers, and he missed a lot of 2011 with an elbow problem. There’s a reason Blanton wound up with the contract he did, and there’s a reason he didn’t seem to be highly sought after in the market. My role now is to try to sell you on him. There are elements of Joe Blanton’s game that should appeal to you quite a lot. You, being the avid reader of FanGraphs.
First and foremost, we can look at the strikeout-to-walk ratio. This has been Joe Blanton’s statistical calling card, of sorts. Last season, Blanton finished with 166 strikeouts and 29 unintentional walks, for a 5.7 ratio. Out of 186 starting pitchers, that ranked fourth-highest. It’s never a bad thing for a starting pitcher to rank fourth on a list behind Kris Medlen, Cliff Lee, and Colby Lewis. Strikeouts and walks aren’t everything, but they’re a lot of things, and in this regard Blanton excels.
Now we’ll turn to contact rate. I’m not really doing this in any order. You might think of Joe Blanton as a contact-heavy starting pitcher, but those strikeouts didn’t happen by accident, and last season Blanton allowed a contact rate of just over 78 percent. He allowed less frequent contact than Zack Greinke, Matt Garza, Josh Johnson, and Anibal Sanchez. Not only does Blanton pound the strike zone; it’s not that easy to put the bat on the ball. He isn’t just grooving it in there.
And then there’s the curious matter of Blanton gaining velocity. Compared to the previous few seasons, last year Blanton’s average fastball was up a full tick. His slider got a little faster, his cutter got a little faster, his curve got a little faster, and his changeup got a little faster. There are the usual questions of sustainability, but Blanton’s velocity has shown no signs of decline, which bodes not poorly going forward.
Truth be told, I could’ve just pointed out this:
2012 ERA: 4.71
2012 FIP: 3.91
2012 xFIP: 3.39
We all know not to believe very strongly in ERA. We also all know not to believe very strongly in unusually elevated home-run rates. We can’t just take Blanton’s xFIP as an accurate measure of his true talent, but if you have a guy with a large spread between his ERA and his xFIP, you usually expect him to pitch more like his xFIP than his ERA. This is not a radical statement, even if it might be interpreted that way by some.
Of course, Blanton’s been in the National League. Of course, he’s not one of the best starting pitchers in baseball, and you can’t ignore his home runs, and things are going to be more challenging with the Angels. He’s getting older, and his repertoire is Joe Blanton’s repertoire. There are elements here to like and there are elements to like a lot less.
But for the Angels, Blanton isn’t a nothing addition. He’s an unsexy addition in just about every sense of the word, but he throws strikes and, for the sake of the fan base, he also works quickly. His home-run problems should be reduced to some extent playing in Anaheim instead of Philadelphia, even after accounting for the league switch. Blanton should be at least all right for the next couple of years, and that’s all the Angels are paying him to be. And maybe, just maybe, he can be better than that.