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There’s a Hidden Gem Left on Baseball’s Seemingly Barren Free-Agent Market

Teams in need of bullpen help, take note

Joe Blanton (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Joe Blanton (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

If the free-agent pitcher pickings were already slim in November, then we’ve currently reached the Sunday-after-Thanksgiving phase, when the fridge contains only the most unappetizing scraps of turkey, the dessert has been devoured, and there’s just a partial serving left of stuffing.

Is anyone really excited about Jason Hammel and his balky elbow? Doug Fister? Fernando Salas? Some pitching situations across the league remain unsettled with just a couple of weeks left before pitchers and catchers report, and the only good news for teams still seeking help on the mound is that when rummaging through all the half-empty Tupperware, one invariably finds a container of mashed potatoes tucked in the back corner of the fridge. This January, Joe Blanton is those mashed potatoes, and he’s ready and waiting to fuel a team’s playoff chances in 2017.

That proclamation might seem odd based on Blanton’s name recognition alone, but consider that in his time as a reliever the past two seasons, the former starter posted a better ERA than Cody Allen and Craig Kimbrel, better home run suppression numbers than Kenley Jansen and Andrew Miller, and a better K/BB ratio than Wade Davis and Jeurys Familia.

Also consider that the sport has never valued relievers more, and it’s both curious that Blanton is still a free agent and clear that he represents the best bargain left on the bone-dry market.

Like most converted starters — from Miller and Davis now to Mariano Rivera two decades ago — Blanton is far more effective out of the bullpen than he was in the rotation, though in his case, the disparity tilts toward the extreme. For years, Blanton was a serviceable option as a starter, the textbook example of a back-end innings eater, but his career collapsed in 2013. Pitching for the Angels that season, he stumbled to a 2–14 record and a park-adjusted ERA 59 percent worse than the league average. Both of those marks rank among the dozen worst season totals (min. 130 innings) for any pitcher since World War II.

Blanton announced his retirement after just two minor league starts the next year, but since beginning his comeback in 2015, he has thrived with the Royals, Pirates, and Dodgers when pitching out of the pen. The factors behind his relieving rise follow the default pattern for starters turned relievers: a velocity boost in the bullpen plus expanded use of a wipeout breaking pitch. Between his disastrous 2013 and last season, he added 2 miles per hour to his fastball and 5 mph to his slider.

About that slider: Since becoming a reliever, he’s upped its frequency — to more than 40 percent of his pitches last season, the ninth-highest rate in baseball (min. 50 innings) — and turned it into a reliable weapon. Since the start of 2015, opposing hitters have managed just a .180 batting average and .281 slugging percentage against Blanton’s slider, per Brooks Baseball. For comparison, Justin Verlander’s slider is his best pitch, and over the same period that offering has induced .182 and .278 marks, respectively.

Blanton is also durable, throwing 80 innings in 75 appearances last season, and he gets both right- and left-handed hitters out — opposing batters from both sides had a sub-.600 OPS in 2016. And while his fly-ball tendencies are still a concern depending on the ballpark — it’s a tad worrisome that the one team rumored to be connected to him in recent weeks is Colorado — he has at least moved to limit the damage that can result from a ball in the air: Of the 195 pitchers who surrendered at least 100 combined flies and line drives last season, only 13 allowed softer contact on those balls in play.

Overall, Blanton’s numbers as a reliever over the past two seasons are a near match for those of Kansas City’s Kelvin Herrera. They both had 26 percent strikeout and 7 percent walk rates, they both allowed 0.7 home runs per nine innings, and they both held opposing hitters to a sub-.210 batting average. Thanks to some extra luck preventing runners who reached base from scoring, Blanton had a better ERA (2.29 to 2.73), but the underlying numbers are strikingly similar.

The main difference between the two is that Herrera has made the All-Star Game two years running and projects as the Royals’ new closer with Davis gone, while Blanton seemingly can’t so much as secure a job interview.

That difficulty might stem from his age (36) or because he was last seen imploding on a national stage, picking up two losses against the Cubs in the NLCS while allowing more home runs in just that series than he did in the entire second half of the regular season. But two poor outings in October shouldn’t overwhelm multiple seasons’ worth of success, so Blanton should still be on teams’ radars before spring training begins.

The most obvious suitor is Washington, which is still chasing L.A. and Chicago in the National League and lags behind them in the pen. While the Dodgers and Cubs rank first and third, respectively, in FanGraphs’ projections for 2017 bullpen WAR, the Nationals sit in 12th place. They still haven’t signed a closer, and if they move Shawn Kelley to that role, Blanton could take his setup spot. Perhaps most appealingly, Googling “Joe Blanton chokes teammate” doesn’t return any relevant results.

Other potential NL callers include the Pirates, whose top two relief options are left-handed, and Mets, who could use another bullpen arm due to Familia’s looming suspension due to a domestic violence allegation. (Charges against Familia have since been dropped, though as was the case with Aroldis Chapman and José Reyes last season, the commissioner’s office is likely to issue a suspension even without a conviction.)

Yet if Blanton’s rumored desire to remain on the West Coast is true, there’s a reasonable option in California. Not the Dodgers (although that remains a realistic possibility); rather, it would make sense for the other Los Angeles team, which saw him at his lowest point, to try for a more enjoyable reunion.

The Angels place 30th in FanGraphs’ bullpen rankings, as every member of Mike Scioscia’s relief corps is either injury-prone or ineffective. This projection comes on the heels of a 2016 season in which the Angels bullpen posted the worst strikeout rate of any team while placing 28th overall — and last in the AL — in win probability added.

Halos GM Billy Eppler has already proved himself a shrewd collector of undervalued veterans this offseason, with Danny Espinosa and Luis Valbuena adding depth and pop to the infield, but he’s been largely silent on the pitching side. Blanton to the Angels might not be the most exciting move Eppler could make, but in an offseason of this caliber, it’s hard to beat a satisfying mid-winter find.