When the Dodgers acquired veteran right-hander Joe Blanton at the July 2012 trade deadline, things did not go well for the then 31-year-old Bowling Green, Kentucky native. In fact, in his 10 starts as a Dodger, Blanton posted a 2-4 record with an unattractive 4.99 ERA. He was not re-signed by the Dodgers at the end of the season and eventually made his way down the I-5 to Anaheim, where the results were even worse in 2013 with the Angels. In fact, it got so bad that Blanton was granted his unconditional release on March 26, 2014 with a full season remaining on his two-year – $15 million contract with the Halos.
Five days later the Oakland A’s signed Blanton to a minor league deal and sent him to Triple A Sacramento where he made two starts with the River Cats. That, too, was a disaster and on April 13 Blanton announced his retirement from the game. But at the urging of his good friend and fellow pitcher Zach Duke, Blanton announced that he would attempt a comeback for the 2015 season, and on February 13, 2015 he signed a minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals. He eventually made it back to the big leagues but was designated for assignment on July 28, 2015 to create a roster spot for Johnny Cueto.
It was during his stint with the Royals that Blanton made his first appearances out of the bullpen, which apparently caught the eye of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who immediately signed the now 34-year-old.
“When I went to Pittsburgh I took on a whole new life. They were like ‘You’re not starting, don’t even think about it’ – not in a negative way – just ‘this is what we want you to do,'” Blanton said. “I’d be up in the second inning ready to go in games and I would throw in the seventh inning, and extra innings.”
But transitioning from a starting pitcher to a reliever doesn’t work for everyone, something that Blanton was well aware of at the time. But it was his ten years as a starter that he credits for his success in his new role.
“I think being a veteran and having been around a lot makes it easier because I’m not real stressed on when I’m gonna go in the game,” said Blanton. “I know once I get out there I’ll be ready – I’m not so stressed – which makes that role easier because it’s all over the board. Some guys who say ‘Hey, I’m the seventh-inning guy’ or when like ‘Alright these lefties come up I know I need to be ready at that time of the game,’ or ‘I’m the closer or the eighth-inning guy.'”
Whatever it was, Blanton made the transition exceptionally well. In his 21 appearances out of the Pirates bullpen, he posted a 5-0 record with an outstanding 1.57 ERA. In his 34.1 innings of work, Blanton struck out 39 while walking only nine with a very impressive 1.019 WHIP.
But in spite of Blanton’s success (and versatility) in Pittsburgh, they elected not to re-sign him this past off-season. But just as the Pirates had done the year before, someone within the Dodgers organization had been paying attention to Blanton and convinced president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi to take a flyer on the now the now 35-year-old veteran, signing him to a one-year – $4 million contract on January 19, hoping to get the same kind of bullpen success that he enjoyed in Pittsburgh.
“I like the talent here,” Blanton said of his return to the Dodgers. There’s still some familiarity with the guys here and the pitching coach (Rick Honeycutt) is the same – I really enjoyed working with him in my time here – so a lot of factors came in. I’m excited to be back.”
Although being a starter and being a reliever is as different as night and day, Blanton says that his game preparation hasn’t really changed all that much.
“Being a starter I took my time getting ready,” he said. “I would take plenty of time doing all the stuff and build in the throwing, but I’ve always been fortunate I can kind of get loose kind of quick
“I was also fortunate I got to play with a guy in Philly – Ryan Madson. He’s been a very good reliever for a long time and I was with him in Kansas City when I went to the bullpen,” Blanton added. “I picked his brain for a long time, he’s very intelligent, and also they have a great bullpen over there … guys like Wade Davis who had been a starter and now he’s excelled in the bullpen. So I was constantly watching those guys and asking kind of what they do and what they’re thinking when they get ready, and melded in my own little thing, which helped.”
New Dodgers manager Dave Roberts sees Blanton’s role as a lot more than just another arm in the Dodgers’ bullpen, he also sees him as a mentor for his entire bullpen staff.
“I think Joe’s really redefined himself and found a nice niche as a relief pitcher,” Roberts said. “You look at him at Kansas City coming out of the pen and then in Pittsburgh … really flourished, and to have that guy that’s been there, done that and shown success in the pen, it’s kind of a calming factor for the guys in the pen.
“I think that emotions, nerves coming out of the pen get high and are elevated,” Roberts added. “But when you get a guy like Joe down there to go along with J.P. [Howell], it’s a nice balance.”
While there are undoubtedly those who feel that signing Blanton was a waste of money and took up a valuable roster spot, it’s hard to argue that the Dodgers needed to do something with their Jekyll and Hyde Bullpen. It’s also hard to argue that when the average age of the Dodgers bullpen staff is under 29, having a veteran presence like Joe Blanton could prove to be a very good thing.