The Detroit Tigers decided on one-half of their return for Mike Fiers over the weekend, acquiring right-handed reliever Nolan Blackwood from the Oakland Athletics. Blackwood, 23, was a 14th round pick by the A’s in 2016, and has spent the entire 2018 season in Double-A ball. He already has one appearance for the Erie SeaWolves under his belt, but we’re going to talk about this old news anyway.
As mentioned, Blackwood was a 14th round pick a couple years ago. He pitched out of the bullpen for three years at Memphis, where he put up a 2.32 ERA in 115 innings. He wasn’t much of a strikeout artist, but limited opponents to under a hit per inning thanks to his unconventional mechanics. The sidearmer was so dominant that he allowed just one home run in his three years pitching for the Tigers.
Since being drafted, Blackwood has generated a few more whiffs. He fanned 25 batters in 26 1⁄3 innings back in 2016 when he was getting his feet wet in pro ball, and has punched out 48 batters in 54 innings this year. His fastball sits in the low 90s, and he pairs that with a breaking ball that has been tougher on lefties than righties this season.
While Blackwood sat at No. 30 on MLB Pipeline’s latest A’s prospect list prior to the deal, their fans held him in higher regard. He was voted the No. 21 prospect in the A’s system by our friends at Athletics Nation, and that was before he held his own in Double-A ball this year.
It’s not hard to see what they like about him. Blackwood’s funky delivery is more than just a novelty, especially when paired with relatively normal stuff — sidearmers are usually using deception to mask a weak arsenal, but he can dial up to 93 mph on his fastball. Opponents put the ball on the ground 68.6% of the time against him last year, which is about as high of a rate as you’ll see in baseball outside of Zach Britton and fellow funkster Brad Ziegler. Even in the famously hitter-friendly Cal League he only gave up two dingers all year.
Our friends at Minor League Ball also named him one of the AL West’s sleeper prospects prior to the season.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS: Nolan Blackwood, RHP: Age 23, 14th round pick in 2016 from University of Memphis, posted 3.00 ERA, 48/18 K/BB in 57 innings in High-A, 3.00 GO/AO, 19 saves; threw six innings with just one unearned run in big league spring training; submarine pitcher with a fastball that gets into low-90s, unusually good velocity for this type of pitcher; decent slider and change-up, if his command is sharp enough he could have a very long bullpen career.
Speaking of that command, Blackwood has looked sharp on that front this season. He has 17 walks in his 54 innings, and has yet to walk more than three batters per nine innings at any minor league level. He has also continued to limit home runs, with just six dingers coughed up since entering pro ball.
Baseball America had similar things to say, along with a comparison to another sidearmer.
Blackwood is a sidearmer who sits 89-92 mph and uses a mid-70s slider as his swing and miss pitch. He’s a reverse-splits pitcher who handles lefties (.576 OPS) better than righties (.772 OPS), but he is generally effective on the whole. Blackwood starred in the Arizona Fall League last year and earned Texas League all-star honors this season, drawing comparisons to Pat Neshek. He will begin his Tigers career at either Double-A Erie or Triple-A Toledo.
This isn’t an amazing return for Fiers (yet), but Blackwood could be a decent piece that should help bolster Detroit’s bullpen depth in the coming years. Guys like Ziegler, Neshek, and Darren O’Day have carved out long careers by hitting their spots, limiting walks, and preventing home runs, and Blackwood seems cut from the same cloth.