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Clay Blackburn may have just gotten the final spot in our consensus SP prospect rankings, but I think you should get to know him better.
*The following post originally ran on September 7, 2012 at The Dynasty Guru. Check it out for more specific keeper/dynasty league content.
At the time of the 2011 draft, a lot was made of the fact that two of the top available talents were from rival high schools in Oklahoma. Of course, you’ve heard of Dylan Bundy and you’re likely pretty familiar with Archie Bradley as well. However, approximately 100 miles west of Owasso (Bundy’s hometown) on Interstate 44, there was another lesser-known prospect a foot. All in all, there were six prep pitchers from the state of Oklahoma who went off the board before Clay Blackburn was taken in the 16th round (507th overall) by the San Francisco Giants. In fact, he wasn’t even the first pitcher selected from his own high school rotation – Conor Costello was taken two picks before him (although he opted to attend Arkansas rather than sign). Blackburn, on the other hand, was given a $150k bonus and signed in time to log 33 1/3 IP in the Arizona complex league.
Those 33 1/3 innings got the attention of scouts, as he had a 1.08 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and 30 strikeouts versus only 3 walks. He entered the 2012 season with a little buzz. Keith Law at ESPN named Blackburn the #10 prospect in the Giants system, Baseball America had him ranked #21 and Kevin Goldstein at BP had him as the system’s sleeper (outside his Top 20). The Giants assigned him to Low-A Augusta to start the year and Blackburn never looked back. This week, Blackburn was promoted to High-A to make a start in the California League playoffs for San Jose. He threw 7 innings of one-run ball with 9 strikeouts and 1 walk. Just another one of those outings for the young righty. In fact, it was the 10th of Blackburn’s 23 outings in which he struck out more than a batter per inning and allowed one walk or fewer.
If you’ve read my stuff across various outlets or follow me on Twitter, you’ve certainly heard me talk about the holy trinity as it relates to pitching. If a pitcher can get strikeouts, limit walks and induce ground balls at above average rates, he can limit his downside risk and pitch deeper into games. The barriers to entry I use are a 7.0 K/9, 2.5 BB/9 and 50% GB rate. For the 2012 season (prior to his High-A playoff start), Clay Blackburn had a 9.8 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 and 55% GB rate. That’s the type of performance that really tugs at my heartstrings. In addition to that, his other stats were pretty good as well – 2.54 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in 131 1/3 IP. That’ll do.
However, with all that said, it’s important to realize what Blackburn is and what he isn’t. As awesome and easy as it would be to look at his stat line and yell "ACE," it’s just not the case. So then what is Blackburn? He’s a big kid (6’4", 225) with advanced command and poise on the mound for his age (he doesn’t turn 20 until January). His best pitch is a sinker which he throws in the low-90’s, but is a special pitch when you take into account both its movement and his ability to locate it. Everything outside of that is still a work in progress. In addition to the sinker, he throws a curveball, slider and changeup – and while none of those pitches currently project as plus, all three could become average pitches down the line. Realistically, this makes him a potential innings-eating #3 starter if the whole package comes together.
The Giants look likely to send Blackburn back to San Jose to start 2013, although there’s an outside chance they could push him straight to Double-A Richmond – which will be a good challenge for him whenever he does arrive there. Blackburn will be a prospect I keep a particularly close eye on going forward because, if his skill set can translate to success in the upper minors, the entire package can make him into a vastly underrated prospect – even more so than he is right now.