We've talked about this earlier. The Nats pen had lost a lot of innings pitched - some good Rivero/Melancon (79.1), Belisle (46), Rzep (11.2), some not so good Petit (62), Papelbon (35), but a lot of innings nonetheless. Knowing this, the Nats made some efforts to get a lights out closer, first trying to re-sign Melancon, then going after Jansen. They failed at both.
That happens, but what happened next was unexpected. Unable to solve the problem of lost innings with the preferred solutions the Nats acted as if there was no longer a problem to solve. Things would be fine, they said, with Kelley and Treinen and maybe Solis and hopefully Glover and ? ? ? It didn't make sense then. It doesn't make sense now, a team that sees itself competing for a title content to leave its bullpen up to the fates
Eventually though opportunity knocked. The best available pitcher, Joe Blanton, was seemingly drawing no interest from the teams despite a price tag that appeared to be quite reasonable (1yr 5 million might have done it). Desperate to take a deal that got him the same money, if not in the same time frame, the Nats were able to swoop in with a deferred deal that paid Blanton his money and got the Nats the arm they desperately needed.
So what kind of arm is Joe Blanton? Since settling in as a relief pitching Joe's been a very effective arm. He's a slider heavy pitcher (43% of the time last year), who uses curves, fastballs, and change-ups around it. The movement of his main pitch makes it very effective, he strikes out a decent amount and is effective at getting swinging strikes, but hard to control. He can walk a few. His ability to place the pitch where he wants has made him as effective against LHB (.546 OPS) as RHB (.587 OPS).
Do the fancy stats have any warnings for us? Plenty. First is the .240 BABIP. Part of that is surely induced weak contact from that slider. But his percentage of soft contact isn't all that high, suggesting luck is playing a large part in this as well. The previous year, pitching mostly, but not exclusively in relief, he had a .301 BABIP which was more in line with past results. That number should rise. Another thing is an oddly low HR/FB rate. Perhaps related to pitching in the vast fields of the NL West, Blanton, who was a severe flyball pitcher last year, had a HR/FB rate of a mere 7.4%. Improvement in this number is not unusual given the focus of relief pitching but again it's a number that should go up. Finally his LOB% - the percentage of men left on base - was fairly high at 82%. This again symbolizes some level of luck, whether that means a lot or a little I can't tell you.
That may seem like a lot of negatives but the end result is basically explaining to you why Blanton isn't a sub 2.50 ERA pitcher, but probably more an over 3.00 ERA pitcher. He's not Melancon, he's Belisle. But this isn't bad. The Nats need a reliable arm and Blanton throwing 80 IP of say 3.10 ERA baseball would fit that perfectly. He's not your lights out closer but he solves the problem we noted at the beginning of the column with the best available solution.
This isn't to say there couldn't be a worst case scenario. Blanton is over 36. His arm could simply dry up. It's hard to say if its coming because going from starter to reliever all those went up the last couple years. However there has been no trend at all in his career yet of declining velocity. Or Blanton, who had everything work for him last year could have everything work against him this year, a .330 BABIP, 70% LOB rate, 17% HR/FB rate which would balloon his ERA up over 4.00. But understand we're saying "oh if he has bad luck accross the board it'll be bad". That's not really an analytical statement. That's a common sense one that applies to anyone.
We try to find the middle ground here and the middle ground says Blanton, shifted over to the Nats and with more moderate luck is probably a low 3.00 ERAs type pitcher. 3.30 or so. That's good enough. Reliable arms are a necessity. You could pray you develop them or you can go out and get them. The Nats went out and got one.