Travis is the New Black[ley]

It took awhile for the former top Seattle Mariners prospect, but now, as a 29 year-old–and with his sixth organization–it appears as though Travis Blackley has finally found himself. Signed as an amateur free agent out of his native Melbourne, Australia, the 6′ 3″, 17 year-old southpaw seemed like the definition of a “can’t miss” prospect.

At first, this was the case. In Blackley’s first three seasons, he was the stud everyone thought he would be, posting a combined 3.05 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.58 K/9, 3.35 BB/9, and 2.85 K/BB. Not that it truly matters, but the lefty even won 17 ballgames in Double-A. Blackley’s success prompted Baseball America to tab the pitcher from “down-under” as the #63 prospect in all of baseball. But then the then-21 year-old started to fall off.

In 2004, Blackley’s stats spiked and deflated in all the wrong places. Unlike his 2.61 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 2.32 K/BB the season before, the young pitcher had a more difficult time with Triple-A hitters, pitching to the tune of a 3.83 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 1.70 K/BB–the latter fueled by regressed control (3.4 BB/9 to 3.8 BB/9) and strikeout rates (from 8.0 K/9 to 6.5 K/9). Regardless, the Mariners promoted Blackley to the show, where he was smacked around (10.04 ERA, 2.19 WHIP, and 0.73 K/BB scattered over 26 IP).

But before the still-top prospect could get a second crack at Triple-A–or the Majors, for that matter–Blackley instead spent the rest of 2004 on the disabled list with tendinitis in his pitching shoulder. Unfortunately, the pain didn’t just go away. The southpaw was forced to go under the knife, and the rehab process subsequently took the entire 2005 season with it. Luckily for Blackley, he made a speedy recovery, and pitched in 2006; yet he was far from the pitcher he once was.

Between Double-A and Triple-A, Blackley combined for a pedestrian 4.06 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and 2.10 K/BB, exhibiting a subpar 6.1 K/9. The Mariners had apparently seen enough of the crumbling pitcher, and sent him to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for outfielder Jason Ellison. But it only got worse from there. Blackley posted a cumulative 4.90 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and 1.77 from 2007 to 2010, for the Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland Athletics, New York Mets, and even the Mexican League. Needless to say, Blackley had gone from riches to rags.

The maligned pitcher decided to take a break from American baseball in 2011, and joined the Melbourne Aces, a franchise in the Australian Baseball League, a brand new professional league in Australia. Shortly after, the left-hander hopped on a plane to Korea, and tried his hand in the Korean Baseball Organization. Perhaps longing for American baseball again, Blackley signed a Minor League deal with the San Francisco Giants on February 16, 2012.

Without a guaranteed job, Blackley arrived in Triple-A as a 29 year-old with a memoir worth of experience. Despite having been ineffective for almost a decade, a new Travis Blackley showed up for the Giants. In 23.3 innings, the lefty posted a sensational 0.39 ERA, 0.68 WHIP, and 6.33 K/BB. Forcing his way onto the Major League roster, Blackley was officially recalled on May 1st, but only lasted 5 innings (9.00 ERA, 1.80 WHIP, 1.00 K/BB) before getting designed for assignment.

Even though it seemed like the end of the line, again, the Oakland Athletics scooped him up–for the second time–and placed him on their 25-man roster. To the surprise of many, Blackley has seemingly put it all together. In 51.3 innings (including 7 starts), the southpaw has posted an excellent 2.63 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, and 3.56 K/BB (fueled by a Maddux-esq 1.76 BB/9).

While it’s only normal to expect regression, Blackley’s peripherals are pretty rock solid–sporting a .269 BABIP (vs. career .280 BABIP), 3.97 xFIP, 45.9% GB%, and 1.7% HR/FB. In addition, Blackley sports a four-pitch arsenal, featuring a slider (4.1 RAA) and change-up (3.8 RAA) that are well above league-average. Even though his fastball hasn’t been a dominant pitch for him so-far (-2.3 RAA), interestingly enough, he’s throwing it a heck of a lot harder (90.4 MPH on average) than he did in his last two stops in the Majors (85.0 MPH and 83.5 MPH on average in 2004 and 2007, respectively).

Blackley’s success in 2012 has been one of the finest stories in baseball this season. Given his surface and peripheral statistics, it looks like he’s locked-up a role in the Athletics rotation for at least this season; and hopefully, he pitches well enough in the second half of 2012 to secure a starting gig in 2013.

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