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Ronel Blanco, Pitch Control, And Caution About Spring Training Stats

Cleveland Guardians v Houston Astros Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images

Here’s a Spring Training fun fact as we start to look forward to camp next month: Ronel Blanco has allowed only one earned run — a solo home run in 2023 — in 22 13 innings, or 235 pitches, dating back to camp in 2020. Blanco looked rather impressive in camp last year, striking out 17 and only walking three across 14 frames. A 0.64 ERA, no matter the context, does jump out and capture attention. His performance was easy to recall, especially as ineffectiveness and injuries sapped the Astros’ pitching depth by early June.

Of course, Spring Training stats are held to be relatively worthless...well, depending on the context. Traditional stats such as ERA and batting average, with their inherent flaws readily apparent in the regular season, present no importance in Cactus and Grapefruit League games. Even the more reliable metrics hold less weight than usual. A strikeout rate, for example, begins to become increasingly stable around 70 batters a pitcher faces. It takes about 60 plate appearances, or roughly 15 games, for a batter’s strikeout rate. Don’t even bother with on-base percentage or more advanced figures such as BABIP and FIP as the sample size is not even present to rely upon that data. Due to the sample size limitations and the varying levels of competition involved in Spring Training, it is best to take these commonly used metrics with a large grain of salt or even outright ignore them.

While his performance in 2023 was uneven in both the majors and minors, and the peripherals didn’t exactly paint an optimistic picture, Blanco did his part to help buoy a rotation in sore need of innings last summer, at least for a time. His strong performance in back in camp likely helped his cause, even if the numbers themselves aren’t all that reliable. While he is already 30, Blanco has another chance to contribute to the parent club in 2024, even if ultimately for depth as an occasional starter and long reliever. For Spring Training purposes, I am curious to see how his pitches move in camp, something that holds more value than the traditional numbers. Blanco’s slider last season specifically captured my attention. By run value, it was his most valuable pitch, coming in at plus-seven runs, on par with Ryan Pressly.

However, the Stuff+ pitch model did not hold an optimistic view on Blanco’s slider, at least for last season with the offering grading out last season at only 93 (with 100 representing average on the scale). The reverse occurred with his four-seam fastball, with a negative-13 run value compared to a 104 grade on Stuff+. No other pitch posted a worse run value on Houston’s staff last season. The biggest issue with Blanco’s fastball lies with where he is locating the pitch, as indicated by a Location+ grade of only 92. That tracks when looking at the heatmap for where Blanco has thrown his four-seam in the past.

To state the obvious, Blanco’s location is the primary aspect behind why he remains a tantalizing depth arm at best within an organization. His four-seam was a liability, allowing eight home runs and a .493 wOBA in 2023. Improving the location for the pitch could benefit him. With that said, it is worth noting that he had a 15.7% swinging strike rate, which certainly presents some optimism despite a lower sample compared to others on staff. But only Bryan Abreu had a higher swinging strike rate, so I am certainly intrigued.

Ultimately, I like what I’ve seen from Blanco in the past, albeit there are some issues to figure out, specifically with location. If the right-hander can refine his control further, I do believe there is something further to unlock with his profile. His slider has shown potent whiff capabilities. But, again, it possibly comes down to control and how his pitches look, not ERA. If the control doesn’t come along, Blanco’s role in 2024 remains a depth arm, with the occasional major league appearance. Regardless of the outcome, though, Blanco is one of the pitchers that I’m watching closely as Spring Training unfolds next month.