The great Ty Blach/Matt Cain debate from the offseason didn’t need to exist at all, apparently. Madison Bumgarner’s unfortunate recreational activities put both of them in the rotation at the same time. Not only that, but through the first two months of the season, their fielding-independent stats are eerily similar.
Blach has the edge in ERA if you’re into that sort of thing (4.15 to 4.91), and he’s also thrown seven complete innings in three of his last four starters, whereas Cain has done it just once all season. On the other hand, the Giants are 1-4 in Blach’s starts, but they’re 5-4 in Cain’s. This debate is outstanding for cherry-picking fetishists.
Before Blach’s start against the Cubs on Monday, though, I wanted to take a moment to appreciate just how anomalous he is. The first step to this appreciation is to examine his fastball. It averages just over 90 mph, which is comfortably below the major league average for starters, but not by as much as you think. It’s more than two miles faster than Dallas Keuchel and Jason Vargas, both of whom might make the All-Star team this year. It’s roughly the same velocity as Gio Gonzalez and Julio Teheran. Heck, it’s just a tick slower than Jon Lester.
This isn’t to suggest that Blach is as good as any of those pitchers, but rather that his fastball isn’t that slow compared to his peers, especially left-handers. Amir Garrett is a top-100 prospect from the Reds, and he hasn’t thrown much harder than Blach in the majors.
It’s just to set up what a weirdo Blach is compared to his peers. He didn’t get his first swing and miss of the season until his fourth relief outing, 37 pitches into his season. He has thrown 52 curveballs this year, according to Brooks Baseball, and exactly one batter has swung and missed. He’s thrown 55 sliders this year, and two batters have swung and missed. That’s 107 breaking balls and three whiffs. For contrast, Jeff Samardzija has thrown 115 sliders in May and picked up 25 swings and misses.
The bright side is that Blach’s best pitch is either his fastball or his change, so there isn’t any reason to worry about his lack of breaking-ball whiffs. The breaking balls exist so that hitters have something to think about other than his fastball and change. It would appear that his curveball is easily his most hittable pitch (though the sample size is small in the majors). And when it comes to his fastball and change, he’s getting a fair amount of whiffs. Below average, sure, but nothing historic.
And historic is what Blach is going for. If his strikeout rate remains where it’s at (2.9 strikeouts per nine innings pitched), it will be the third-lowest rate since 2010. It will be lower than 10 different Kirk Rueter seasons. If you look through the list of pitchers with similar rates over the last seven seasons, you’ll sure see a lot of pitchers without jobs in 2017. Remember Jair Jurrjens? Dana Eveland? Ryan Rowland-Smith?
Buried in that collection of names, though, we find a Cy Young winner. A quick, dirty, and unfair comparison!
Dallas Keuchel vs. Ty Blach
|Age||What Keuchel was doing||What Blach was doing|
|Age||What Keuchel was doing||What Blach was doing|
|21||7.0 K/9 in Low-A, successful||College|
|22||6.9 K/9 in Class-A, still successful||8.1 K/9 in Class-A, successful|
|23||5.3 K/9 between Double- and Triple-A, varying success||5.8 K/9 in Double-A, successful|
|24||4.9 K/9 in Triple-A, hit hard in majors||5.1 K/9 in Triple-A, hit hard|
|25||7.2 K/9 in majors, hit hard||6.3 K/9 in Triple-A, successful|
|26||6.6 K/9 in majors, successful||2.9 K/9 in majors, doing okay|
|27||8.4 K/9 in majors, Cy Young||?|
|28||7.7 K/9 in majors, hit hard||?|
|29||7.6 K/9 in majors, leading AL in ERA||?|
Will Blach win a Cy Young next year? I guess anything is possible, but no. No, he won’t. It’s not exactly good sabermetrics to pull an outlier out and make Keuchel the comparison.
At the same time, there are a couple of reasonable points to make from that table. One is that low strikeout rates don’t have to be an eternal curse. There wasn’t an a-ha moment with Keuchel that boosted his strikeout rate. He just got better with all of his pitches, and he commanded them better, too. There’s still a chance that Blach’s change can morph into a plus-plus pitch instead of a solid complement. He has more of a ceiling than you might think because of his fastball velocity.
The other reasonable point is that he’s probably going to strike out more batters than 2.9 per nine. It’s still early, after all, and that really would be an absurd rate. He’ll miss more bats eventually.
And before we start comparing Blach to an All-Star and Cy Young winner, we should probably note those fielding-independent stats up there again. He’s been exactly as effective according to the nerd numbers, which is to say not especially effective.
I still can’t shake the idea that a pitch-to-contact starter can succeed in 2017, especially one that’s paper to the rock of the currently fashionable uppercut swing. The early returns on Blach are inconclusive, but he’s holding his own, at least. Even with the low strikeout rate, he probably belongs.
Keep an eye on those breaking balls, though. If he learns how to miss bats with any of his offerings, he has a chance to be much better than most prognosticators gave him credit for.