Nick Blackburn and Release Point

January 13, 2011
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I’m a nerd and nerds do nerdy things.  The other night I was thinking about how awful Nick Blackburn was last year (2010) until he was sent down to AAA, eventually returning as an improved pitcher (compared to before being sent down).  I decided to look into Blackburn’s release point before and after he was sent down to see if that could have been a reason for his struggles.  Using PitchFX data from fangraphs.com and some photoshop magic, I came up with a graphic showing his release point for 2 bad starts prior and 2 good starts after he was sent down.

Two Bad Starts:

@PHI (6-18) – 1.2 IP, 8 ER, 2 HR, 3 BB, 2 K.

@DET (7-10)- 4.0 IP, 7 ER, 4 HR, 1 BB, 1 K  (This was the game I believe all 7 hits he allowed were all extra base hits).

Two Good Starts:

@SEA (8-28) – 8.2 IP, 0 ER, 0 HR, 2 BB, 6 K (granted it was against a bad SEA offense)

TEX (9-5) – 7.0 IP, 2 ER, 0 HR, 3 BB, 4 K

The image below shows his release point for all types of pitches, only the colors differ the aforementioned “good” and “bad” starts.

Red == Bad Green == Good

As you can see, his release point was a little higher in those games when he got shelled.  It should be noted however that the PitchFX system is different from park to park (possible accuracy issues) and the release point is actually given at 50 ft from the back point of home plate (Spinning Yarn by Mike Fast).  Also, the small sample size (4 games) should be increased but I don’t have enough time.  I’m not proving anything here other than an interesting relationship between the aforementioned games where he pitched well and where he did not pitch well.

So was it just release point that was troubling Blackburn last year?  It could be.  There’s other things to consider as well like defense, how well he mixed up his pitches, injury, etc.  For someone like Blackburn (and seemingly most Twins pitchers in history) who pitches to contact and relies on defense, it’s important that they keep the hitters off balance.  It’s also important that they find the right release point and have proper mechanics allowing their pitches to have the most movement and control.  With a pitch to contact pitcher, there’s little room for error due to your inability to strike batters out.  If you aren’t finding your release point and getting enough movement on your pitches, fans are probably finding souvenirs.

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