The San Francisco Giants are about to open spring training, and right-hander Clayton Blackburn is one of twenty-two non-roster invitees who will be in camp, fighting for a spot on the club. Regardless of the likelihood of making the team outright to begin the season, there remains the ongoing goal of creating a favorable impression on Giants management.
The current rotation, as indestructible as fans might wish and hope it to be, will still require shoring up at times over the grueling 162-game schedule. Blackburn has some of the fundamental qualities in a pitcher that the Giants seek, including an easy delivery and a commendable walk-to-strikeout ratio. He would be a top contender for that role.
At 6-2, 260 pounds, Blackburn is an imposing figure on the mound. Unlike pitchers with complex deliveries, Blackburn utilizes his bulk to create the impression that his movements are somewhat relaxed. The result is that the ball arrives deceptively quickly, giving Blackburn an advantage that may be just what is needed to establish himself as a big league pitcher.
Though certainly not unique, Blackburn’s path to the Giants included a low draft status (16th round, 507th overall in the 2011 amateur draft out of Edmond Santa Fe High School in Edmond, Oklahoma), due in part to the common misperception that he was committed to pursuing higher education. The Giants took a chance on him and he signed with them immediately.
At age eighteen, he debuted in the Arizona League, getting into twelve games, six of them starts, hurling thirty-three-and-a-third innings and posting a 3-1 record with a 1.08 ERA. He struck out thirty and walked three for a minuscule 0.81 BB/9, a SO/9 of 8.10 and a WHIP of 0.57.
The following season at Class-A Augusta of the South Atlantic League, Blackburn posted an 8-4 record in 22 starts, with a 2.54 ERA in 131.1 innings, the big number being three, as in number of home runs allowed. His eighteen walks and 143 Ks resulted in a 1.23 BB/9 with a 9.80 SO/9 and a WHIP of 1.02.
Just when Giants brass was beginning to look at Blackburn more as a “Clayton” along came 2013, and the twelve home runs surrendered in almost the same number of innings as in 2012, 133.0. He kept his record on the north side of the .500 line at 7-5, but his ERA dipped to 3.65 in 23 games started and he gave up 35 bases on balls while striking out 138, for a 2.37 BB/9. He still maintained a 9.34 SO/9 and recorded a 1.10 WHIP.
Except for two games at San Jose, Blackburn spent his 2014 season with the Double A, Richmond Flying Squirrels, posting a 5-6 record in eighteen starts, tossing 93.0 innings, and surrendering exactly one big fly.
One home run given up over an entire season: That will catch one’s eye.
His twenty free passes and his 85 Ks combined to give him a 1.94 BB/9 and his resulting 8.23 SO/9 complemented his 1.23 WHIP well.
Blackburn comes equipped with the standard four-pitch arsenal: fast ball, curve, change-up and slider. His pitching mechanics clearly stem from the fact that he uses his bulk to his best advantage, resulting in a diabolically simple delivery.
MLB Prospects’ Mike Rosenbaum characterizes his fastball as ranging between 91-93 mph, with good command over his two-seamer to both sides of the plate. He is described as a fastball/curveball kind of pitcher, with the ability to put a sinking motion on his pitches which helps induce ground balls.
His change-up is a key pitch for Blackburn, because he is good at varying his pitch speeds and it helps in keeping opposing batters off-balance. Though his slider is described as nothing special, it serves the purpose of providing a fourth option to be utilized as the situation warrants. Besides, being in camp with players like Sergio Romo, might give him the opportunity to upgrade that slider.
Aug 17, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Sergio Romo (54) throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies during the eighth inning at AT&T Park. The San Francisco Giants defeated the Philadelphia Phillies 5-2. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
His body type reminds long-time Giants fans of Big Daddy, Rick Reuschel, and his demeanor on the mound is one of measured intent. The opposition consistently must create its own opportunities, because Blackburn gives little away in the form of freebies. He doesn’t get rattled out on the mound, keeping his emotions in check most of the time.
The occasional jolt of electricity he displays just lets his teammates see that his passion is there; he just picks and chooses his moments. Whereas making the jump from Double-A ball to the big leagues is huge, realistically, he is more likely to begin the season at the Triple-A level, and then the transition becomes less of a leap, and more of a stride.
Blackburn is built for the long haul; all he has to do is demonstrate that he can transfer his performance from the minors to the big-time. A player who can keep his emotions in check and methodically go about the business of getting batters out, is going to be an asset on a team which is going to need an infusion of youthful vigor at some point this upcoming season.
Clayton Blackburn has the talent, the temperament and the tone of a big-league pitcher. The Giants are looking for just such a commodity and the budget would look kindly at the addition of a player which would have minimal impact on the already-tentative salary structure.
One of the prizes of spring training is seeing just such a metamorphosis of a pitcher of Blackburn’s caliber. The Giants are overdue when it comes to transforming one of their many prospects into gold, but the time may have arrived. For some just being on the big stage provides the final element required to raise the level of intensity to the required peak.
Oh, and did I mention he’s another in the Giants’ contingent of Southerners? This could lead to a very good thing.