Name: Nolan Blackwood
Height/Weight: 6’5’’, 185
How Acquired: Selected in the 14th round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
Although not a top-10 round pick, Nolan Blackwood has been on an aggressive development track since joining the Oakland A’s in 2016. Is the sidearming right-hander a future fixture in the A’s bullpen?
Blackwood’s selection as the 412th pick in the 2016 MLB Draft wasn’t particularly notable at the time. The right-hander had a solid three-year career at the University of Memphis, posting a 2.33 ERA in 116 innings and saving 24 games. He wasn’t a high-profile prospect, however, so it was a bit of a surprise when it was Blackwood – and not top-10 round picks A.J. Puk and Logan Shore – who became the first member of the A’s 2016 draft class to throw an inning for a full-season affiliate.
In fact, Blackwood spent most of his 2016 pro debut season with Low-A Beloit. After five appearances (6.1 innings) with short-season Vermont, Blackwood moved up to Beloit and threw 20 innings over 13 appearances. He struggled initially with the Snappers but found his grove late and finished that season with 11.1 scoreless innings.
In 2017, Blackwood joined fellow 2016 draft mates Puk, Shore and Daulton Jefferies on the High-A Stockton Ports’ pitching staff. Despite having less than 30 innings of professional experience, Blackwood served as the Ports’ closer from the outset of the season. He would keep that role the entire season and finished the year second in the California League in saves with 19 (he blew only one save all season).
Blackwood racked up 57 innings over 44 appearances for the Ports. He posted a 3.00 ERA and a 48:18 K:BB. An extreme groundball pitcher, Blackwood had a 68% groundball rate and he allowed just two home runs. Cal League batters hit only .205 against him. Blackwood had a particularly strong finish to the season, helping the Ports reach the post-season by saving eight games in eight chances in August and September.
After the Ports were eliminated from the post-season, Blackwood joined the Double-A Midland RockHounds in the Texas League playoffs. He made two appearances for the RockHounds, tossing 1.1 scoreless innings with no hits allowed, striking out one and walking one. At the close of the season, the A’s named Blackwood to their Arizona Fall League contingent.
Pitching for the Mesa Solar Sox, Blackwood put together one of the best seasons of any reliever in the 2017 AFL campaign. In 11.1 innings pitched, Blackwood posted a 1.59 ERA. He allowed just six hits and three walks and he struck-out 16. His 2017 resume earned him a spot on the A’s non-roster invitee list for the upcoming big league spring training.
Blackwood’s throwing mechanics are an interesting hybrid of two successful big league closers. He crouches over in his set-up in a style reminiscent of Craig Kimbrel. While Kimbrel is only 6’0’’, Blackwood is 6’5’’, so as he emerges out of his crouch, he creates a significant shift in eye level for the hitter. Blackwood’s release point is similar to A’s Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley. Blackwood starts his throwing motion with his arm above his ear and then whips it down, releasing the ball just before shoulder level. The effect of the crouch and the release point is quite striking – hitters often have no idea where the ball is coming from and it isn’t uncommon to see them take defensive hacks falling away from pitches on the outside corner of the plate.
Separate from his throwing motion, Blackwood’s stuff isn’t overpowering, but it isn’t finesse, either. His fastball sits in the low-90s, touching 93, and he has an effective low-80s change-up and a slow, sweeping breaking ball that ranges from 76-81 MPH. He generates plenty of movement on all three of his pitches. Like most sidearmers, Blackwood is most effective versus same-side batters. He held right-handers to a .167 BA with Stockton, while lefties hit .253 against him. In the Fall League, lefties hit .222 against him, while righties batted .087.
Blackwood’s biggest weakness right now is his command. He gets so much movement on his pitches that pinpointing the location can be challenging, at times. His walk-rate isn’t outrageous (2.6 per 9 IP for his minor league career), but he can get wild in bunches on occasion and sometimes has pitches move back over the plate into a hitting zone rather than away from it. That issue hasn’t hurt him that much in the lower levels of the minor leagues, but is something he will continue to work on as he faces more advanced hitters who aren’t as fazed by unusual throwing motions.
Since turning pro in 2016, Blackwood has been used in a closer role and has found significant success in that role despite not having traditional closer velocity. Blackwood is very poised on the mound in pressure situations and is a fierce competitor. Down the road, he could be used in a variety of roles, similar to current A’s reliever Ryan Dull.
Blackwood will turn 23 in March and is likely to start the season with Midland. However, if he has a spring training showing similar to the one he put together in the Fall League, Blackwood could push his way onto the Triple-A Nashville roster. Regardless of whether he starts the season in Midland or Nashville, Blackwood should get to Triple-A at some point and could be in the conversation for the A’s bullpen this time next year.
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