At the start of the season, only one member of the Nashville Sounds’ pitching staff had no prior Triple-A experience. Nearly halfway through the 2017 season, that pitcher – East Bay native Paul Blackburn – has been the Sounds’ most consistent starter. With a 2.86 ERA in 72.1 innings for the Sounds, Blackburn is knocking on the door of the major leagues.
The Oakland Athletics acquired Blackburn this off-season from the Seattle Mariners in a trade that sent Danny Valencia to the Northwest. It was the second time Blackburn had been traded in less than six months – he was one of the prospects who went to Seattle in the Mike Montgomery deal with the Chicago Cubs. For Blackburn, a trade to the A’s was a homecoming, of sorts.
“I was born in Antioch and lived in Oakley – my parents still live there – and I went to school in Brentwood,” Blackburn said.
However, Blackburn did not grow up an A’s fan; rather, he rooted for the San Francisco Giants.
“I loved watching Jason Schmidt pitch; Jeff Kent, Barry Bonds, JT Snow – guys like that,” he said, adding he did watch the A’s, as well. “I grew up watching them, too, when I was younger. It’s a hometown team, so it’s kind of cool to come through the organization.”
Blackburn was originally drafted out of high school by the Chicago Cubs out of Heritage High School in Brentwood in the first round (#56 overall) of the 2012 draft. He climbed from rookie league to the the Cubs’ Double-A squad in three years. His career path changed at the trade deadline last year, only to take another turn this off-season.
The transition to the A’s family has gone well, Blackburn said.
“It’s fun,” he said. “They treat everyone well – baseball should be fun, and I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve been treated very, very well. It’s been fun.”
Blackburn’s highest ERA in professional ball was last year for Jackson at Double-A – and it was just 3.54 (his Double-A ERA between Tennessee and Jackson combined was 3.27). This year with Triple-A Nashville, it’s just 2.86, and while his K:BB ratio has dipped slightly from 2.83 to 2.30, his WHIP has actually improved from 1.21 last year to 1.12 this year.
Thus far, Blackburn hasn’t been phased by his first taste of the highest level of minor league baseball.
“You notice guys with more of an approach,” Blackburn said. “The zone is a little smaller up here, and you see a lot of veteran guys – and a lot of prospects, as well – but I haven’t noticed much of a difference coming from Double-A to Triple-A.”
It helps that the 6’1” 195 pound right-hander sports a variety of offerings to opposing hitters.
“I feel like my change-up has helped me a lot over the first month-and-a half,” Blackburn said. “My first couple of outings I was trying to find it, still. The cutter; and my curveball has come along this year – I’ve been working on it every day and I’ve seen results that I’ve been happy with.
“Now, it’s just to know what pitch to throw on what count, and just knowing hot to set up guys better.”
If he had to rely on one pitch for a strikeout, Blackburn said, it just depends on his feel.
“I basically go off just what’s working that day,” he said. “Just moving the ball; every pitch should have a purpose – just moving the ball and changing speeds – that’s what I’ve been doing.”
Blackburn also makes in-game adjustments on his pitch selection.
“A couple of times through the line-up, you’ll make a change,” he said. “I’ll talk to the catcher or the catcher will come to me and ask me if it was a good pitch or not; if a guy stayed on it well, then we’ll change the next time up, but if we have a pitch that’s working against that guy, we’ll probably keep on going with that pitch, so if he makes the adjustment, it’s against us.”
Ranked by OaklandClubhouse as the A’s 25th-best prospect coming into this season, Blackburn is certainly worth keeping an eye upon as he continues to progress. He is one of two members of the active Sounds’ rotation (Daniel Mengden being the other) currently on the A’s 40-man roster.
In early May, Blackburn had the opportunity to pitch near the Bay Area when the Sounds traveled to Sacramento to take on the River Cats. Blackburn had a large contingent of friends and family in the stands to watch him throw six shutout innings. The unflappable Blackburn said he wasn’t nervous to pitch in front of a “home” crowd.
“It was fun to have them there – some of them haven’t seen me pitch in five or six years,” he said. “It was just a good experience; it was just good seeing them because in the off-season I don’t see them that much. It was fun to pitch there in front of people I haven’t seen in a while.
With the rate the A’s have been churning through starters at the big league level, Blackburn’s chance to pitch in front of those friends and family in Oakland could be coming soon.