With a 6-foot-5 frame and a potential strong three-pitch mix, right-hander Shawn Blackwell is one of…
Blackwell trying to keep it down
Shawn Blackwell has been in professional baseball for nearly 11 months now, but he has spent most of that time at Fall Instructional League, Spring Training, and Extended Spring Training.
On Sunday, Blackwell made just his third ‘official' pro start, getting the victory and yielding three runs on six hits in five innings, walking one and striking out two.
"I thought I had a good outing," said Blackwell after the game. "I didn't have the best stuff, but I had good stuff. My defense definitely helped me out––I had a good D behind me today. And the run support helps."
Blackwell generally threw his fastball between 88-90 mph, touching 91 in the early going and sitting around 88-89 in the later innings.
One of the primary reasons the Rangers liked Blackwell enough to give him a $300,000 bonus as a 24th-round pick was his projectable 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame.
The height allows Blackwell to get a good angle on his fastball––making it more difficult to hit––and he could add velocity once he matures. The 19-year-old could eventually sit in the low-90s, perhaps touching a bit higher at times.
Blackwell consistently throws strikes and gets ahead in the count, but he has had an issue with leaving the ball up in the zone––a common problem for young, tall pitchers.
The right-hander elevated a few too many fastballs on Sunday, and that led to six hits in five innings.
"In Spring Training, I was leaving the ball up a little bit," he said. "We've really been working on getting the ball at the knees. I've been doing a decent job in games. I'm just trying to carry over what we're working on into the games.
"Being tall, you've really got to stay back and get out in front to try and get that ball low."
At this point, Blackwell's velocity is just fine, if not up a tick from his days at Clear Creek High School in the Houston area.
Though he's throwing hard right now, Blackwell hasn't been immune to the occasional loss of velocity, another common issue for young arms in their first year of professional ball.
"I ran into a little bit of dead arm in extended," said the native Texan. "It's just getting used to that. I threw a lot in high school, but this is a different type of throwing out here. It's just getting used to that in your first season. I'm taking care of my arm and conditioning the best I can."
A temporary loss in velocity isn't always bad, particularly for pitchers that are accustomed to overpowering high school hitters. Blackwell says his dead arm period forced him to focus on location.
"Your first instinct is to overthrow, but you've got to fight that and not try to overthrow," he said. "You just have to try and execute pitches even more than you would if you had a good fastball. You have to keep the fastball down and execute pitches a little bit better."
Blackwell's primary offspeed pitch has always been his big-breaking curveball, which showed promise at Fall Instructional League last year.
The breaking pitch appears to be progressing, as he's throwing it a bit harder with sharper break this season. In Sunday's game, Blackwell threw most of his curveballs in the mid-70s, but he was also able to bury it in the dirt at 77 mph to get both his strikeouts.
There is still room for Blackwell to improve his curve––it was sometimes a bit inconsistent and he could sharpen the break. But the pitch is coming along, and it looks to have plus potential.
"Throwing the curve more, it feels better," Blackwell said. "At the very end of extended and the beginning here in the AZL, my curveball was kind of nonexistant. This last week and a half, it has come back for me. I found it, which is good. That was a good sign today."
The prospect says he has been learning how become a better pitcher with his curveball, but he's also careful not to overthrow it.
"I've been working on the curve through Spring Training and extended," he said. "I wanted to throw that first-pitch strike curveball and then throw that 0-2 curveball different. I need to get ahead with the 0-0 curve, because most guys aren't going to swing at it.
"Those two strikeouts––I threw them a slower curveball before that for a strike. And then with two strikes, I try to throw it a little bit harder, but I don't want to overthrow it too much because then it'll be a 50-foot curveball. So I try not to make it too much different."
As is the case with most talented high school pitchers, Blackwell didn't use much of a changeup before he signed with the Rangers.
He flashed more than just a rudimentary feel for his change during Fall Instructional League, and though the pitch wasn't at its best on Sunday, he is still happy with the overall progress.
"I think the changeup has come along really well," said Blackwell, who says he threw five or six changeups on Sunday. "It was so-so today. I've had better days with it, but it's definitely something I've had to work on."
The changeup is a unique pitch in that it's different for everyone. For instance, a grip that works with Trevor Hoffman may not work with Eric Gagne, or vice versa. In his search for a comfortable grip, Blackwell says he has talked to a number of pitchers.
"My changeup was a weak spot in high school, and I talk to anyone I can about changeups," he said. "If they've got a good changeup, I talk to them.
"I spoke with Richard Alvarez in Spring Training. My buddy with the Phillies from high school has helped me out. And also Justin Thompson, the pitching coach in Spokane. It's kind of a mix of just talking to guys and messing with grips."
Because of his tall frame, projectability, and potential three-pitch mix, the Rangers are developing Blackwell as a starting pitcher. His pitch count has been gradually built up this season, and he expects to be on a 75-pitch limit for the remainder of the year.
From here on out, Blackwell just wants to continue to throw strikes while developing his overall game.
"I want to go out there and pound the strike zone with what I have," he said. "I want to make hitters hit and keep my pitch count down. I want to let my defense work, because we have a real good defense down here. I just want to go out there and give the team a chance to win every game."
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