Joe Blanton moved from the first base side of the rubber to the third base side, from the rotation to the bullpen and from a four-pitch repertoire to more of a fastball-slider mix.
But before the Los Angeles Dodgers reliever could reinvent himself and revive a career that flat-lined two years ago when the Los Angeles Angels released him and swallowed the remaining $8.5 million on his contract, he made a strategic call.
Blanton sat out most of 2014, with the exception of his two starts for Oakland’s triple-A club, clearing his head by tending to the grapes on his Napa Valley vineyard.
The former Franklin-Simpson and University of Kentucky star eventually got the urge to pitch again, and at the suggestion of an ex-teammate, Blanton visited Los Angeles-based pitching consultant Tom House, a former big league reliever, who diagnosed a key flaw: Blanton was flying open in his delivery, causing him to expose too much of the ball to hitters too soon.
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“I didn’t really play in 2014, so coming in from scratch, I was able to start over,” Blanton said. “It allowed me to go back to square one to make sure everything was working right.”
Blanton signed a minor league deal with Kansas City before 2015 and, after a seven-game stint at triple-A Omaha, was 2-2 with a 3.89 earned-run average in 15 games, four of them starts, for the Royals.
He was traded to Pittsburgh for cash in late July and used exclusively in relief, going 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA in 21 games, striking out 39 and walking nine in 341/3 innings for a career-best strikeout rate of 10.2 per nine innings.
That earned Blanton a one-year, $4-million deal with the Dodgers, who plan to use him along with Chris Hatcher and left-handers J.P. Howell and Luis Avilan to form the bridge between the starter and closer Kenley Jansen.
Blanton, 35, retired all six batters in his spring debut against the Chicago White Sox on Thursday. He gave up one run, a Kris Bryant home run, and two hits in two innings of the Dodgers’ 7-3 exhibition victory over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.
“Joe works hard, he prepares,” Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts said. “Just the way he goes after hitters, and for the role, I think he’s found a nice little niche for himself.”
Blanton looked like a lost cause in 2013. He was 2-14 with a 6.04 ERA, giving up 29 home runs, and was released the next spring, with former Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto calling the two-year, $15-million deal he gave Blanton “regrettable, a mistake on my part.”
But what nearly killed Blanton’s career also made him stronger.
“A lot of guys have gone through rough months, rough seasons or a rough couple of years, and then they come out of it,” Blanton said. “The struggles you have make you who you are today. Hopefully, you can learn and grow from them.”
A year away from the game seemed to invigorate him. Working in shorter bullpen bursts, Blanton gained a tick of velocity on his fastball, which averaged 90.8 mph last season according to Fangraphs, up from his career average of 89.5 mph.
The move to the third base side of the rubber also gave Blanton a better angle on his slider, which he threw 31.6 percent of the time in 2015, a dramatic increase from his 14.3 career percentage.
“Being a starter and a four-pitch guy my whole career, you have to establish your fastball, curve, slider and changeup,” he said. “Not every pitch has to work, but you have to do a lot with them, move balls in and out.
“Coming out of the bullpen for an inning or two, if a pitch isn’t working, I just can it for that day. If I don’t feel like I have a curve, I don’t have to throw it. I can go to the slider-changeup and make sure I’m locating my fastball.”