There are a few similarities between Ronel Blanco and Cristian Javier, at least on the surface. Both pitchers predominantly utilize a four-seam fastball and slider combination with combined usage rates exceeding 85%. Blanco, like Javier, has experience both as a starter and a reliever, albeit more so as a reliever. Each arguably needs to add a quality third pitch to mix at some point to maximize their respective ceilings. Of course, the younger Javier has experienced much more success in his career — mostly with two pitches — compared to the older Blanco. When you dig a bit deeper though, there are notable differences in how their pitches behave.
But Javier’s journey thus far provides a template Blanco could loosely follow. After all, the former was initially deployed as a multi-inning option in relief, with generally positive results. It became increasingly evident as Javier continued to develop that he should start and has become an above-average starter, although his recent results are worrisome. The Astros haven’t been afraid to experiment with Blanco as a starter, too, but with varying results. While his surface-level numbers are passable — 4.76 ERA in 34 innings as a starter — the peripherals aren’t nearly as encouraging with a walk rate over 12% and a FIP north of 7.
Ultimately, I am not convinced Blanco will succeed leaning only on his four-seam and slider combination without some adjustments. At least as a starter. I mean, his four-seam fastball currently has a -13 run value, besting only five qualified pitchers. That’s not good, like, at all. While his fastball does possess higher velocity, Blanco doesn’t have the same deception that Javier has at his best. His release point, for example, is noticeably higher. Average spin rates are roughly the same, but Blanco’s fastball location tends to drift more into the middle of the zone. I wonder how much more effective his four-seam could become if his location mirrored more of Javier’s at the top of the zone, but that is just a speculative thought at this point. It is worth noting that Blanco does generate more active spin on his four-seam fastball (98%) than Javier (93%) does with his heater, at least for this season.
Blanco’s real plus pitch is his slider, which is among the best in baseball with a +6 run value. Only 25 qualified pitchers have a better run value for their sliders, including teammates Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu. If there is a reason why Blanco can stick as a starter or reliever, it begins with his slider. That said, he can’t rely upon his slider only. Sooner or later, he will need to either improve his fastball or develop a third pitch, regardless of his role.
Blanco’s changeup, which he has thrown with increasing regularity since June, could become that third pitch, especially against left-handed hitters. His last start against the Mariners on July 6 — 6 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 2 BB, 9 SO — demonstrated how effective Blanco could become if he had an effective third offering. Predominantly thrown against left-handed hitters, Blanco managed to neutralize Seattle’s left-handed bats for the most part when mixing it in with his slider and fastball. The only hit he surrendered that day to a left-handed occurred when he threw his four-seamer. When overlaid with his slider, it is easy to spot why his changeup was effective against lefties with movement towards his arm side compared to his slider that breaks to the glove side.
Going forward, I’d like to see more of Blanco’s changeup, regardless of his role. I am a fan of how well it pairs with his slider and it could become a valuable alternative in certain situations compared to his inefficient fastball. It is worth noting that the Astros can only send Blanco back to the minors only two more times this season before exposing him to waivers. With the trade deadline only a couple of weeks away, I wonder how soon we see him again in the majors. But if the plan is to keep him stretched out, I would figure that he will keep working on his changeup in Sugar Land.