I've been a fan of Paul Blackburn for awhile. Since before the 2012 MLB Draft. I wrote this about him in a draft preview in May of 2012,
Blackburn is a bit more polished than (Hunter) Virant, but he does have some projectablity left. He stands 6'2", 180 lbs. and is athletic with a clean delivery. He throws low 90s now but occasionally hits 94 mph. It's possible he may add a tick or two to that fastball, but what you're looking at with Blackburn is a good all-around pitcher who has a good feel for pitching and the potential for above average stuff, command, and control. Might be a bit safer than some of the others, but he does have upside too.
Well some of that projectability is turning into reality. Blackburn has added 30 pounds of muscle without losing any of his flexibility, athleticism, or feel for pitching. Along with the muscle, he has added those few ticks to his fastball, something we were hoping for back when he was just a skinny high school kid.
I've been hesitant to rank Blackburn because I've lacked a whole lot of first hand information since that day, but a conversation with Cubs minor league pitching coordinator Derek Johnson began to change my mind.
It wasn't so much anything Johnson said, but it seemed to me that even with his laid back drawl, he couldn't disguise the excitement in his voice. He described Blackburn as an exception to the general rule in that he was a kid with a great arm who could throw hard - but who already had naturally advanced pitching skills. My personal interpretation? He thinks the kid is special.
Had I waited until after that conversation to make my list, I would have ranked Blackburn much higher and, as of today because of his great performance so far, I'd slot him in behind Pierce Johnson as the Cubs 2nd best pitching prospect and 7th best prospect overall.
There were some reports of Blackburn hitting increased velocity in Arizona and then we heard he hit 94 in his first start. Cubs Den reader Casey attended his last start and told me he regularly hit 95 mph.
Think about that and then go back and read that original pre-draft report. It almost seems unfair to add a big fastball to that profile.
This is a kid whom the Cubs liked because of his feel for pitching -- his athleticism and potential for command and control. He was advanced -- even "safe", as I described it. The first thing you think of with that description is he's a finesse, back of the rotation guy, a #3 at best.
Not at 95, he isn't.
At 95 mph what you now have is a guy who has all the physical attributes to be an impact MLB pitcher -- the command, the secondaries (including an improving change and a curveball that has the potential to be a plus offering and a swing and miss pitch), the athleticism, and the projectability -- and now you can add plus fastball to that list. Right now you'd describe him as a guy with 2 plus pitches with the potential for at least a 3rd average pitch, plus command, approach, pitchability -- and the mental makeup to give him the higher probability of making it all work for him.
In other words, you'd be describing a guy who could fit somewhere in the front of a rotation.
The approach and makeup was described well in an excellent piece by MiLB.com.
"If a guy hits you hard, you just have to let it go, because that happens in baseball," Blackburn said. "I don't care if it's the fourth hitter or the ninth hitter, you have to approach everyone like they're the best hitter out there. Don't give into them, and make them show that they can beat you on your pitch."
MiLB also noted that Blackburn is not satisfied with just pitching well, that there is a constant drive for improvement. No matter how well he does, he knows he can be better. In the harsh reality of prospect attrition, he has to be better if he's going to be a MLB pitcher. It's that kind of makeup that separates the merely talented from the successful and productive.
I've said this many times but it bears repeating here: Mental makeup isn't a tool that can make a bad player a good player. It doesn't replace tools or skill level. Rather, mental makeup makes it more probable that a player will one day learn to use those tools effectively. It makes it is more likely that he will develop the necessary baseball skill to go with that talent.
"If I go out and throw seven innings, allow one hit and walk a guy, it's a great outing, but I'm not as happy as I would be if I went out there, didn't give up a hit and didn't walk anyone," Blackburn said. "One of the biggest things to me is just finding a way to keep the team in the ballgame to get a win."
And in the end, that's what excites you as much as that 95 mph fastball. Blackburn has all the necessary tools to be an impact pitcher in the MLB, perhaps even a frontline type starter -- but only if he keeps improving. But based on Blackburn's mentality, it's hard to imagine he won't continue to strive to get better.
What I'm really hoping for is that Blackburn makes it to Kane County by the end of the year. Admittedly that is partially for selfish reasons but I'm also beginning to wonder if Blackburn, even at age 19, is too advanced for the NWL right now. Perhaps a taste of more experienced hitters in the Midwest League will challenge Blackburn to take the next step -- not that he needs anything to motivate him.