Clayton Blackburn: pitching with a purpose

San Jose’s Clayton Blackburn has been on a lot of fans’ radar recently. The 20-year-old righty, known for an overpowering curveball, was recently named the California League Pitcher of the Week.

Clayton Blackburn tells you to deal with it. (Jen Mac Ramos)

Clayton Blackburn tells you to deal with it. (Jen Mac Ramos)

For Blackburn, a rough start to the second half has only lead to adjustments — ones that have helped him in his outings. His first start in the second half was at Stockton’s Banner Island Ballpark, a very hitter-friendly place, lasting only 3.2 innings and giving up eight runs, of which only six were earned. After working with San Jose’s pitching coach, Mike Couchee, Blackburn has been pitching at least six innings in his outings.

“I’d say they put a big focus on pitching [in San Jose],” Blackburn said. “They’re really focusing on us developing as guys that can pitch in tough places.”

Blackburn acknowledged that San Jose isn’t as bad a park for pitchers as parks such as Lancaster’s or Stockton’s, but it’s a hitter’s league nonetheless.

“It keeps you humble,” Blackburn said about pitching in the California League. “I think that’s what they want. They want to see us fail a little bit so to see how you bounce back. I figure I’ve done that this year and so has other guys. Crick’s done it, Mejia’s done it, we’ve all done it. I think we bounce back well and we’ve had a good year.”

Blackburn’s curveball has been talked about amongst those in the baseball blogosphere. He knows it’s a big curveball that is pretty good, but he thinks he can always work to improve it and his control on it.

“I usually throw it for a strike, most times, when it’s good,” Blackburn said. “You can always work on it. Being able to throw wherever I want it, which I’m working on doing with my pitching coach and in our bullpen.”

While his curveball is what he’s known for, he’s working on adding a fourth pitch to his repertoire.

“I’ve also been developing a bit of a slider,” Blackburn said. “Early in the season, it was pretty loopy. It was more like a slurve, but these last couple of outings, I’ve gotten it to work much more like a slider.”

To develop the slider, Blackburn has been working on it in bullpen sessions and throwing flat grounds with reliever Danny Sandbrink.

“[Sandbrink] throws a pretty good [slider], so I’ve been seeing how he throws it, picking his brain on it,” Blackburn said.

Constantly trying to improve himself is the biggest thing for him, he said.

“Play catch every day and throw bullpens,” Blackburn said. “Instead of just going out there, playing just to play and get something done and actually try to improve every day. That’s the biggest part of it.”

Strikeouts have been a big part of Blackburn’s season, having struck out 115 in 110 innings pitched and a K/9 of 9.3. He doesn’t set out to strike batters out, though — he just wants the outs.

“Strikeouts are good when you get into a situation where you’re in a jam and need a strikeout,” Blackburn said. “But for the most part, I don’t try to strike people out.”

He called his start on Jul. 25 against the Lancaster JetHawks his best outing of the season, where he struck out six and went eight innings, but he said he doesn’t go for strikeouts.

“I’m more of a control guy,” Blackburn said.

When it comes to approaching hitters, he said he tries to throw the ball down in the zone.

“The ground’s pretty hard, so a lot of ground balls go through the holes for base hits,” Blackburn said. “But I’d rather see that than cheap home runs.”

Mixing pitch speeds and location is key, he said.

Blackburn also points out the similarities between himself and fellow starter, lefty Ty Blach.

“Me and Ty are pretty similar from different sides of the plate,” Blackburn said. “We both attack the zone early and I think that’s where our strikeouts come from.”

They both get ahead in the count and are able to get guys out, he said. They both also try to get contact early in the count.

“Me and him both go deep in the game and that’s what we like to do,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn prefers to have games where he can go into the 7th than shorter outings, adding that that’s the type of mentality he and Blach have on the mound.

“Strikeouts will come along and if they do, great,” Blackburn said. “If not, it’s all about getting outs.”

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