Scouting Report: Giants Prospect Clayton Blackburn
San Francisco Giants pitching prospect Clayton Blackburn enjoyed a breakout of sorts during the 2012 season. Pitching for Augusta in the South Atlantic league, the 2011 16th round draft pick, Blackburn led the league in WHIP and strikeouts while posting a 2.54 ERA in 131.1 innings. A fantastic line for anyone, but especially fantastic considering Blackburn is only nineteen years old and pitching in full-season ball. On paper, Blackburn looks like a potential future pitching staff ace. In person, however, he falls into a category of guys who possess lesser stuff but great command. These types of pitchers generally dominate in the low minors. Usually, these types aren’t fresh out of high school. These guys aren’t usually right handed either. Lesser stuff/great command types are usually left handed pitchers drafted as organizational arms out of smaller colleges with good changeups. That being said, let’s take a closer look at Clayton Blackburn.
Blackburn is a three-pitch pitcher. While it’s been reported that Blackburn throws in the low 90s by a couple of well known armchair prospect writers, the truth is that he touches the low 90s, but spends ninety percent of the time in the upper 80s. I only saw six innings of one start. Still, a few of my most trusted scouting sources confirmed my velocity readings. While this pitch isn’t what some have made it out to be, it’s a groundball inducing drug for hitters.
I know most evaluators will say that a two seam fastball with good sink and a sinker are the same pitch. I view it differently. There is a mental picture in my head of what is needed to deviate between a two seam fastball with good sink and a true sinker. I would call Blackburn’s fastball more of a sinker than a two seam fastball. His sinker has good sink. By combining good sink with above average sidespin, and excellent command, he wreaked havoc on hitters throughout the game I saw. The sidespin and sink caused many fastballs to bore under the hands of right handed hitters causing awkward swings and weak contact. With all things considered, on 20-80 scouting scale, I say this pitch is a 50 now with little projection left. This pitch is his out pitch.
His curveball was his most used off-speed pitch. Overall, he commanded this pitch well but not as pinpoint as his fastball. At times, he didn’t choke the ball enough, causing some flat curveballs. Most of these curves were thrown out of the strike zone and the hitters could not take advantage of these spinners. The curve sat in the mid-70s and also induced its fair share of groundballs. Right now, it’s a below average pitch. And like the sinker, it has little projection left.
Showcasing a good 8-10 MPH speed variation from his fastball/sinker, his changeup lacked the command that his other two pitches exhibited. While I didn’t observe the usual signs of the pitch being telegraphed, the pitch did have a flatness that was void from the fastball and curve. This flatness led to the opposition making solid contact with the pitch. It’s obvious that he does not have a true feel for it. And the changeup is all about feel. With feel, comes confidence. And if he can grow in both those areas, then it could become a useful pitch.
Physically, Blackburn is a big-boned kid. Listed at 6’3’’, 220 Pounds, Blackburn appears at least 20 pounds heavier than his listed weight in person. We’re talking about a big boy with tree trunks for legs. Anyway, there isn’t much physical projection left for Blackburn. It is a concern that he is such a big guy at nineteen.
At first glance, Clayton Blackburn is a “tweener.” I’ve since redacted that train of thought. He will start 2013 in the hitter-friendly California League, which I fully expect him to handle well, given his groundball tendencies and his ability to command two pitches fairly well. The real test will be his promotion to Double A, which will probably come sometime next season. How he handles that promotion is the big question mark. I’m personally under the belief that a sinkerballer featuring the command that Blackburn possess has a future role in a MLB bullpen. While it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Blackburn develops into a Major League starter, I don’t think the projection is there to develop enough stuff to work his way through a big league lineup 3 times. Blackburn’s combination of command and pitchability is a rare commodity for a pitcher of his age. Putting me on the spot, his pie in the sky projection would be a solid, back end starter. For Blackburn to get there, however, he will need to find additional velocity, which given his physical projection will be difficult, and develop a feel for his changeup. My gut tells me middle reliever or a 4A starter, but I’m leaning more towards the reliever.