When the Angels traded Ervin Santana to the Royals and declined Dan Haren’s option, the rotation depth was depleted. This left Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams in a position to fill the void behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and newly acquired Tommy Hanson. The Angels followed those moves by signing Joe Blanton to a two-year, $15 million contract and trading switch hitting designated hitter Kendrys Morales for Jason Vargas.
When the news of Blanton’s signing broke, there were a lot of skeptics about signing a pitcher with a career ERA of 4.37 (4.55 from 2009-12). A 4.37, or a 4.55 ERA isn’t exactly what you would expect of a pitcher that is getting paid an average annual value of $7.5 million, but as Saxon Baird looked at in late December, there is more to Joe Blanton than meets first glance.
Blanton’s biggest fault has always been his tendency to give up the long-ball. Part of this is due to how many pitches he throws in the strike zone, 50.6% of pitches (16th among pitchers with at least 800 innings since 2008), and partially due to the fact that since mid-2008, Blanton has played in one of the most homer-friendly parks in baseball. If you believe in Park Factors, Citizens Bank Park tends to inflate the number of home runs hit by around 16% for left-handed hitters, and 3% for right-handed hitters, compared to a league average park.
Angels Stadium, meanwhile, suppresses homeruns by around 28% against lefties and 10% for righties when compared to the hitter friendly stadium in Philadelphia. The Angels also have the benefit of playing 63 of their 81 home games in 2013 in the evening, where the cool, damper west coast air causes balls to not travel as well as they would during the day. This alone should suppress the amount of home runs given up by Blanton, but there’s also the added help a flyball pitcher like Blanton will receive from the superb outfield defense in Anaheim with Trout, Bourjos and Hamilton tracking down errant air balls.
What does this mean for his overall production? I direct you to the table below to help me explain this.
Over the past four seasons nearly 43% of the runs allowed by Blanton have come off of home runs. That is over 20% higher than the MLB average over the same period of time.
Blanton has also historically had poor home run-to-fly ball numbers, which is simply what percentage of flyballs end up in the bleachers. Since 2009, 13.4% of the flyballs he has surrendered have ended up as home runs, while the league average is just 9%. This is something pitchers have little control over, and is largely affected by home ballpark.
If Blanton had a league average HR/FB rate, he would have given up only 61 homers over the last four seasons. If you normalize this slightly, his ERA would sit close to an even 4.00.
Blanton isn’t exactly an extreme flyball pitcher, nor is he a groundball pitcher. His batted ball rates are as close to the league average as you could imagine. There aren’t many walks to be had when Blanton takes the mound, although he does allow more hits than the average pitcher does—again probably lending to his propensity for constantly throwing in the strike zone.
Some of it, however could be due to poor defense and luck, as shown in his BABIP, or batting average on balls in play (as in plate outcomes that aren’t strike outs, walks or home runs). Studies have shown that pitchers tend to have very little control over their batted-ball average and most hover around league-average which is close to .290. Since 2009, Blanton’s BABIP has been close to .310. With the Angels having a very good defensive team at nearly every position, Blanton should see a reduction in the number of runners on base—and therefore in the number of runs that cross the plate.
Of course, none of this is an exact science—as with all pitchers, there is always a chance for injury or regression. It is just the nature of the position and the game. Even so, a durable, innings eating middle-of-the-rotation starter who could post a sub-4.00 ERA for the paltry (comparatively) sum of $6.5-million is a good bargain. While some will point out that Brandon McCarthy got a similar contract yet has performed much better, McCarthy didn’t fit what the Angels needed—and is a much greater health risk. Blanton gives the Angels league average performance for 175+ innings a year, which is what the Angels need.