An injury-marred and rookie-reliant rotation that averaged just 5⅓ innings a start forced the Los Angeles Dodgers to carry an eight-man bullpen for much of the season, a relief corps that seemed to consist of Kenley Jansen and the Seven Dwarfs.
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound cut-fastball specialist cast a long shadow over his bullpen mates, posting a 3-2 record with a 1.83 earned-run average in 71 games, converting 47 of 53 save opportunities, striking out 104 and walking 11 in 68⅔ innings.
But it takes more than a dominant closer for a bullpen to lead the major leagues in ERA (3.35) and strikeouts (633) while throwing the most innings (590⅔) in baseball.
It took a village of relievers — 21 in all — to help the Dodgers raise their fourth straight division flag, with setup men Joe Blanton and Pedro Baez, left-handers Adam Liberatore, Grant Dayton and Luis Avilan and middle men J.P. Howell, Josh Fields, Jesse Chavez and Louis Coleman making significant contributions.
“On most teams, you have your bullpen guys who are going to get the publicity, and usually, it’s for a reason,” said Blanton, Kentucky’s Mr. Baseball in 1999 while at Franklin-Simpson and a former University of Kentucky star. “But to make a winning team, it takes more than those one or two guys who get the attention. With all the injuries we’ve had, to be in the position we’re in, it’s taken a whole lot of guys.”
The Dodgers were criticized for piecemealing a bullpen together with one real star, but Blanton, who revived his career this season, is one of the primary reasons the approach worked.
The 35-year-old right-hander signed a one-year, $4-million deal last winter thinking he would be a long reliever. When Chris Hatcher and Baez struggled in April, Blanton migrated toward the back of the bullpen. By June, he emerged as one of Jansen’s primary setup men.
Two years removed from his 2014 flameout with the Los Angeles Angels, Blanton went 7-2 with a 2.48 ERA and 28 “holds,” tied for fourth-most in the major leagues. In a team-high 75 appearances, he struck out 80 and walked 26 in 80 innings.
“I’ve put him in some tough spots, a lot of stressful situations, but he always seems to make pitches when he needs to,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “He prepares himself well. He doesn’t panic. He’s found a nice niche for himself as a reliever at the back end of his career.”
Blanton appeared to be at the end of his career in March 2014 when the Angels released him and ate the $8.5 million left on his contract. Jerry Dipoto, who was then the Angels’ general manager, called his decision to sign Blanton before 2013 “regrettable, a mistake on my part.”
Dipoto had brought him on even though Blanton had been a disappointment during the back half of the 2012 season with the Dodgers, when he was 2-4 with a 4.99 ERA. For the Angels, Blanton was one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball, going 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA and 29 homers allowed.
He was so determined to rebound from that season that he lost 15 to 20 pounds the following winter, reporting to spring training in 2014 at a lean — and, he thought, mean — 215 pounds. He carried his strenuous workouts and strict diet into March, trimming down to 207 pounds at one point.
Players often boast of reporting to camp “in the best shape of my life,” but for Blanton, who weighed as much as 255 pounds earlier in his career, it was no spring-training cliché.
Problem was, the weight loss sapped some strength, his leaner physique threw off his mechanics, and Blanton could barely hit 87 mph with a fastball that sat in the 90-mph range for most of his career.
Blanton got pounded in spring training, his ERA an unsightly 7.08 in 20⅓ innings when he was let go.
“Coming off my worst year, I wanted to be in the best shape I could be in, and I overdid it,” Blanton said. “I lost too much weight. It was a body change, and I did it fairly quick. It was too much of a shock, and I didn’t know how to adjust.”
Blanton sat out 2014 with the exception of two starts for Oakland’s Triple-A club, clearing his head by tending to the grapes in his Napa Valley vineyard.
With help from Los Angeles-based pitching consultant Tom House, Blanton corrected a mechanical flaw the following winter — he was flying open in his delivery, causing him to expose too much of the ball to hitters too soon — and went 7-2 with a 2.84 ERA in 36 games for Kansas City and Pittsburgh in 2015.
His weight back in the 230-pound range, Blanton has thrived this season with a fastball that has averaged 91.2 mph and a vastly improved slider, which he throws 40 percent of the time.
“Everybody has their ‘playing weight’ for good performance,” Blanton said. “You get a little under that, you may feel light and athletic, but you lose some strength. You get too heavy, it kind of slows you down. There’s that little sweet spot for everybody, and mine is around 230 pounds.”
Some of Blanton’s added velocity can be explained by physics.
“You add the slope of the mound, you have more weight going downhill, it adds to your momentum,” Blanton said. “If your body doesn’t slow up, that’s good.”
The move to the bullpen, where Blanton expends more energy in shorter bursts, also helped.
“You’re going out for an inning, maybe two, so I’m not trying to pace myself,” said Blanton, a starter for nine years. “You can kind of let it rip a little more.”
Angels fans are probably still trying to reconcile the Blanton who was rocked virtually every time he took the ball 2013 with the one who will be summoned by in high-pressure playoff situations by the Dodgers, who open the National League division series at Washington on Friday.
But Blanton has been almost as effective in his role as the much-more-acclaimed Jansen has been in his. Blanton has only one blown save in 75 games. He’s been charged with earned runs in only 12 outings. He’s given up 55 hits, seven of them homers.
“I think outside this clubhouse, Joe has been under the radar, but inside, we understand his value,” Roberts said. “From long relief, to mixing and matching with him in the sixth and seventh inning, to going to the eighth … he’s a very unselfish player. He wants to win.”
Kentuckians in Major League Baseball
Final regular-season statistics
Player, team (Ky. connection)
Andy Burns, Blue Jays (UK/transferred)
Adam Duvall, Reds (Butler, U of L)
A.J. Ellis, Phillies (Paul Laurence Dunbar)
Jason Kipnis, Indians (UK/transferred)
Luke Maile, Rays (Covington Catholic, UK)
AJ Reed, Astros (UK)
Ben Revere, Nationals (Lexington Catholic)
Mark Reynolds, Rockies (Pikeville native)
Player, team (Ky. connection)
Andrew Albers, Twins (UK)
Joe Blanton, Dodgers (Franklin-Simpson, UK)
Tyler Clippard, Yankees (Lexington native)
Cody Ege, Angels (U of L)
Mike Fiers, Astros (Cumberlands)
Christian Friedrich, Padres (EKU)
Trevor Gott, Nationals (Tates Creek, UK)
x-Chad Green, Yankees (U of L)
Nate Jones, White Sox (Pendleton Co., NKU)
Shawn Kelley, Nationals (Ballard)
Dean Kiekhefer, Cardinals (Oldham Co., U of L)
Matt Koch, Diamondbacks (U of L)
Justin Marks, Rays (Owensboro Cath., U of L)
Alex Meyer, Angels (UK)
James Paxton, Mariners (UK)
Chaz Roe, Braves (Lafayette)
Taylor Rogers, Twins (UK)
Robbie Ross Jr., Red Sox (Lexington Christian)
Chris Rusin, Rockies (UK)
x-Daniel Webb, White Sox (Heath)
x-finished season on disabled list