Last year, there was a reliever who made two more appearances than Dellin Betances, threw more innings, and had a lower ERA. That reliever wasn’t given a qualifying offer this offseason, but he’s still a free agent with spring training underway. The pitcher in question is 36-year-old Joe Blanton, a former starter best known for being on the 2008 World Series champion Phillies. Despite pedestrian career numbers and pedestrian stuff, Blanton has been a dominant reliever for the last two seasons, with a 2.65 ERA, 9.2 K/9, and 2.4 BB/9.
When we think of relievers, we tend to think of pitchers who have 100 mph fastballs and/or wipeout secondary pitches. Blanton has neither. His average fastball velocity was 91 mph in 2016. His slider was his most commonly used pitch, but it clocked in at an average 86.1 mph. While it has an above average spin rate, but it still doesn’t have Andrew Miller movement.
The one thing Blanton can do is locate his slider extremely well. Here is where he threw his slider in 2016, courtesy of FanGraphs:
When Blanton threw his slider out of the strike zone, hitters swung at it 47% of the time. For some reference points, fellow Dodgers Kenta Maeda and Clayton Kershaw had chase rates of 49% on their sliders. Justin Verlander was at 46%, while Chris Archer was at 43%. Whether it was through deception created in his delivery, exceptional command of his slider, or a combination of both, Blanton was able to use the pitch to revive his career.
Still, he remains a free agent. It is true that he doesn’t fit the conventional mold of an elite reliever. By relying so heavily on his slider, Blanton has to live outside the strike zone a lot, which is less than ideal for relievers. Yankee fans might remember when Shawn Kelley was in New York. Occasionally, Kelley would have an outing where he just couldn’t find the strike zone, sometimes leading to extremely deflating losses.
Nevertheless, Blanton has shown that relievers don’t necessarily need the best stuff in order to succeed out of the bullpen. If he is still a free agent, it is probably because his asking price is very high. With Tyler Clippard, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman forming the back end of the Yankees’ bullpen, they probably don’t stand to benefit much from bringing him in. However, he should serve as a symbol of hope for pitchers struggling to find their niche in the starting rotation.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.