Last February and March, Joe Blanton struck manager Charlie Manuel as the Phillies' sharpest pitcher during spring training. Then Blanton posted a 8.41 earned run average in April, and did not win a game until his fifth start, on May 4.
The righthander excelled throughout the summer, but regretted the shaky start. So this year, he has altered his spring training plan with the hope of creating a better April, even if the cost is a less impressive March. After allowing three runs on five hits in two innings in his first appearance on March 6, Blanton shut out Detroit through four three-hit innings this afternoon. The results were more palatable, but Blanton was not particularly concerned about that; his only goal was to improve his fastball and change-up command.
Unlike last spring, Blanton has thrown only those two pitches so far, in an effort to begin the regular season with a particularly strong change-up. He has not yet introduced his curveball and slider to game action, reserving them for bullpen sessions. Because the change-up is a so-called "feel pitch," and requires repetition to be effective, Blanton is using it extensively this month. While he might throw a few other breaking balls in his next start, he will not likely utilize his entire repertoire until his final two or three Grapefruit League appearances.
"I've never really done it that way," Blanton said. "But I thought that my change-up was so big for me last year, I really want to get nice command of it to righties and lefties on both sides of the plate before I move on to other ones....I figure if I can get that base down, then I can expand off of that. "
Blanton learned the change-up relatively late, having not thrown it during his three years at the University of Kentucky. In 2003, the Oakland Athletics told him told him to temporarily abandon the curveball while pitching for Double A Midland, and throw as many change-ups as possible. That sped the pitch's progression, but Blanton did not feel completely secure with it until last summer.
"It was a really big pitch for me last year," he said. "It's a big pitch in today's game. It really keeps hitters off balance."
This year, he is working to ensure that the change-up will be fully functional right away, which would help him avoid another unsavory April.
"Last year, I kind of started off in a hole," Blanton said. "I started off pretty bad....you take off four bad starts and that makes a completely different year."