Yusmeiro Petit, the stoic, dart-throwing right-hander who filled the Giants’ long relief role so aptly for the past two seasons, is no longer with the team after being non-tendered over the offseason. But there is a pitcher in Giants camp whom manager Bruce Bochy sees as strikingly similar.
That’s Clayton Blackburn, the 23-year-old right-hander who last season recorded a 2.85 ERA for the Triple-A River Cats in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. Blackburn is not a particularly hard thrower, but Bochy said over the weekend that Blackburn is “kind of like Petit” in his ability to command four pitches for strikes in any count.
Petit, who signed with the Washington Nationals in the offseason, is best remembered with the Giants for his six critical relief innings in Game 2 of the 2014 National League Division Series and coming within an out of a perfect game in 2013. Blackburn, though, said he paid attention to more than just the highlights.
“I think he mastered what I’m trying to master,” Blackburn said of Petit. “He learned his mechanics, his pitches, his arm slot and all that. He was able to throw all his pitches for strikes whenever he wanted, to both sides of the plate. That’s something that I try to do.”
6 Home runs allowed by Clayton Blackburn in 123 innings with the River Cats last season
Blackburn said he’s more of a sinker thrower than Petit, striving to make hitters beat the ball into the ground. But he admired how Petit moved his fastball around the strike zone and deceived opponents with a pitch that, according to Fangraphs, never has averaged faster than 89 mph during a major-league season.
“He commanded his fastball better than I think I’ve ever seen anybody do it since maybe Greg Maddux,” Blackburn said.
Petit does throw a standout curveball. Blackburn said he does not have a “wipeout strikeout” pitch, so he focuses on locating all his pitches down in the zone and on the corners so he can throw them in any count and keep hitters guessing.
“That’s what I’ll have to do to have a successful career,” Blackburn said. “It’s a lot to do, but it’s something where it’s fun to pitch. When things are going good, it seems like you’re playing mind games with hitters, and that’s why baseball is fun.”
Blackburn was a step ahead most of last season, going 10-4 for the River Cats and keeping the ball down enough to allow just six home runs in 123 innings – no small feat in a league that features launching-pad cities like Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.
The numbers were not enough to earn Blackburn a September call-up to San Francisco, but the Giants took note. This spring, the staff made sure Blackburn pitched in the Cactus League opener, which Bochy later said was a reward for his 2015 season.
Blackburn made his third spring appearance Friday against the Seattle Mariners and threw three perfect innings before allowing two runs in his fourth. He said afterward he is close to where he was at the end of last season in terms of his delivery. He also came into camp thinner than he was last spring.
“I think for the most part everything’s kind of locked in,” Blackburn said. “I think I did a good job this offseason getting myself ready to come in and compete this year.”
When things are going good, it seems like you’re playing mind games with hitters, and that’s why baseball is fun.
Blackburn may be headed back to Sacramento when the season starts. The Giants have their rotation set and Chris Heston as a long reliever and backup option. But the Giants saw last season – with Matt Cain and Jake Peavy missing most of the first half – the importance of having rotation depth. And Bochy indicated that Blackburn is positioning himself this spring to be the first option at Triple A.
“It’s good to have guys knocking on the door,” Bochy said. “Knock on wood nothing happens, but we feel like we have some depth now, more so than we had last year.”
If Blackburn were to be summoned to San Francisco, it could be in Petit’s former role. If so, Blackburn said, he’ll try to make his own mark.
“Obviously, I want to be a little bit better than Petit,” he said. “Just because they compare you to somebody, that’s not who you want to be – you always want to strive to be better than that.
“He was great at what he did. He pitched in some situations for the Giants that helped them win World Series. So that’s kind of the role I want to play, is whatever role they need me, I want to be there to perform, and perform at the highest level.”