Joe Blanton in Los Angeles… er… Anaheim

After declining Dan Haren’s $15.5 million dollar team option and letting Washington pay him $13 million for one year, the Los Angeles Angels signed Joe Blanton for $15 million dollars over the next two years. Blanton, heading into his age 32 season, is essentially a Haren-lite in that he has strong K/BB rates and struggles with home runs. Home runs have been especially problematic for Blanton of late as he has posted a 1.4 HR/9 rate in each of his last three full seasons spanning 2009-2012 (he had a 1.1 in just 41 IP in 2011).

In that same time, he has a 3.4 K/BB that his risen yearly topping out at 4.9 last year. His sharply declining walk rate is primary factor as it has dipped yearly since 2008 when he tied a career-high 3.0 BB/9 all the way down to last year’s excellent 1.6 mark. His newly discovered strikeout success has been a bit overlooked. He carried a 5.1 K/9 in 761 innings with Oakland, but then moved over to the National League and saw a rise of more than two strikeouts per game up to 7.3 K/9 in 674 innings. There is a benefit in moving over to the NL, but it’s about 0.3 strikeouts per game so it wasn’t just that for Blanton.

His whiff rate (swinging strikes) rose dramatically in that time suggesting his stuff got better. The data only goes back to 2007 which only covers about a year and a half of his Oakland work, but you can see the sharp rise in that time:

   Year IP Whiff Rate
2007 230 6.8%
2008 198 6.6%
2009 195 8.4%
2010 176 9.8%
2011 41 10.4%
2012 191 10.4%

The dramatic rise has been driven mostly by improvements in his breaking stuff. For the data set we have, his slider whiff rate jumped from 13% in the two years with Oakland to 17% in the four in the National League (mostly with Philly before last year’s trade to LA). His curveball jumped from 12% to 20% and it has been at 22% the last three years. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain the strikeout gains upon returning to the American League.

Unlike Haren, who he is ostensibly replacing, Blanton gets a nice boost in home ballpark when it comes to his biggest problem: home runs. Citizen’s Bank Ballpark in Philly actually suppressed righty home runs a bit last year with a 94 rating (where 100 is average), but lefties had a field day at 126. Dodger Stadium is often thought of as a pitcher’s park (and it has been on the whole rating 100 or lower since 1962), but you can hit some home runs there and last year it had a 108 rating for righties and a 117 mark for southpaws.

Blanton gave up 14 home runs in Citizen’s Bank a year ago, seven to each side. He actually only gave up three bombs in 38 innings in Dodger Stadium last year (2-1 favoring righties for those wondering). His new home, Angels Stadium, hasn’t yielded a favorable home run park factor to either side of the dish since 2009 including last year’s extremely stingy 80 to righties and 82 to lefties. Though the entire sample dates back to his Oakland days, Blanton has allowed just one home run in 48 innings of work there en route to a 2.61 ERA in six starts and two relief appearances.

Blanton doesn’t have the upside of Haren at all. The comparison is meant only between the similarities in strong K/BB rates and trouble with home runs. Blanton hasn’t been on the ride side of a 4.00 ERA since 2007, but his last three full season xFIP totals are encouraging at 4.01 in 2009, 3.87 in 2010, and 3.39 last year (his 3.15 in 2011 came in just 41 innings).

The xFIP totals are so favorable because they balanced out his gaudy home run problems with a league average HR/FB rate whereas Blanton has been above 12% the last four years (including the partial 2011) topping out with last year’s 15.3%. If you aren’t confident that he can utilize the park to make major strides in the home run department, then FIP would be a better indicator for you. It still tells a positive story about how he has pitched the last three full season declining from 4.45 in 2009 to 3.91 last year.

Though going back to the AL isn’t a positive indicator for ERA in general (NL starters have a 0.28 advantage the last four years), this specific case represents an opportunity for a pitcher to buck the trend and slice some fat off of his ERA going the other way. I like Blanton as a late dollar days target to round an AL-only or deep mixed league staff. His unimpressive numbers from last year (4.71 ERA, 10-13 record) combined with the general assumption that moving to the AL is a net negative for a pitcher will leave his price tag lower than it should be for this talent profile.

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