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The Immortal Joe Blanton

Among baseball players, there are a few archetypes or player profiles that tend to be ever present in the major leagues. Aside from the stars and superstars that spend many years in the league, there are also a few guys who simply never seem to disappear. We have the old “left handed and breathing” adage for southpaw pitchers, the effective middle relievers who scarcely become closers, or the utility infielders who can play a lot of positions. And even in this pitching-rich era, there will always be a spot for hurlers who can eat some innings while being average at best. And this is why there will always be someone like Joe Blanton in a big-league uniform.

On July 19, Blanton recorded his first career save, which sounds weird on the surface and becomes even weirder you consider all that he’s been able to accomplish in baseball despite his middling talents. Even as he came with a decent pedigree and was drafted in the first round (24th pick overall) in 2002 by the Oakland Athletics, Blanton never really took off as a prospect with the A’s, quickly becoming a journeyman that is with his fifth team in a 12-year career. And yet, here he is again after missing all of 2014 following a 2013 season in which he was arguably the worst pitcher in the AL (-2.0 WAR, 6.04 ERA), now playing for the AL’s best team and with serious aspirations of playing a role in their postseason run.

This not only serves as testament to Blanton’s durability and perseverance, but also to the other classic adage of “you can’t have enough pitching”, making even league-average talent worthy of a roster spot. Today we take a look at Blanton’s career and his collection of stats, accomplishments, and how he has been able to remain part of Major League Baseball for more than a decade.

To put Blanton’s career in perspective, we might as well start with his full career line:

278 games, 252 starts, 87-91 record, 1 save, 1602.1 IP, 4.51 ERA, 1.358 WHIP, 92 ERA+, 19.5 fWAR

In a nutshell, we can see the epitome of a slightly above average pitcher, but one who has still managed to be valuable. In certain ways, it can be preferable for a team to give the ball to a known commodity veteran like Joe Blanton instead of taking a risk with a low-ceiling rookie, because at least you are pretty sure of what you are getting.

Pitch F/X data has tracked Blanton’s pitches since 2007, and he has been eerily consistent in mixing a four-seam fastball in the low 90’s, a slider, and a hard sinker, with occasional change-ups and curves that have been actually below-average offerings. This has made Blanton one of the few real finesse pitchers in the game, with decent control and a subpar strikeout rate, along with league-average groundball numbers.

Despite the mediocrity, Blanton has made at least 20 starts in 9 of his 11 full seasons in the majors, with 4 above-average seasons in total in terms of ERA+, and only two years having sub-4 ERA’s. However, Blanton still has been part of 5 playoff teams, made 6 starts in the postseason (2-0, 4.02 ERA) and arguably has the most surprising homerun in modern World Series history, when he became the first pitcher since 1974 (and only the 13th in history) to hit a homer in the Fall Classic.

That highlight alone may be the pinnacle of Blanton’s career, and it also means that he has more World Series rings than the last 12 years of AL Cy Young winners combined.

In terms of sheer durability, he also is in rarified air. Since his debut in 2005, there have only been 35 pitchers who threw at least 1,500 innings. The top 20 in terms of WAR is filled with the usual suspects, really some of the best pitchers of the last era (Felix, CC, Kershaw, Verlander, Halladay, to name a few), but the bottom is where the Blanton-like inning eaters reside.

Blanton himself ranks 31st in terms of WAR, 33rd in ERA, and 27th in strikeout rate. While those numbers may not be anything worth boasting about, they still mean that a pitcher like Blanton is useful for any kind of team. Guys like Jeremy Guthrie, Edwin Jackson, and Kyle Lohse are still employed by major league franchises, and they will be as long as they can keep throwing strikes while staying mostly healthy. The difference with Blanton is that he has been able to be on the right place at the right time to have a colorful career, and that may continue with his surprising return in 2015.

Now at age 34, Blanton has become a super-utility pitcher (if there’s such a thing) for the playoff-bound Royals. Since his first appearance on May 16, he has played in 14 games, with four of them coming as a starter. He has shown the versatility to be a long reliever, spot starter, and fill-in for any role that may arise, which is especially useful for a team like Kansas City, who has been plagued by pitching injuries.

Steamer projections like Blanton to remain in this role for the rest of the season, pitching around 25-30 innings while providing 0.5 WAR at most, which sounds about right considering his skills and age. For a guy who is making close to the veteran’s minimum, it is not bad for a small-market franchise to keep him around, more so when Blanton’s arm can help the Royals spread the innings around to save their truly special pitchers.

Joe Blanton will never be confused with a star, but his career arc has again put him in a place where he can be an important part of something bigger. For us who believe in baseball’s meritocracy, let’s hope he still has something left in the tank.

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