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Oakland A's 2017 top-50 prospect scouting report: Nolan Blackwood, RHP

Our Oakland A's 2017 top-50 prospects list is out. Now find out more about the players on that list. In this piece, a close look at top-50 prospect Nolan Blackwood. Blackwood had an impressive pro debut. Which former A's reliever does he compare to?

Name: Nolan Blackwood
Position: RHP
Height/Weight: 6’5’’, 185
Bats/Throws: R/R
Age: 21
How Acquired: Selected in the 14th round in the 2016 MLB Draft

Nearly a decade ago, the Oakland A’s had a relatively little-known sidearmer in their system who would go on to blossom into one of baseball’s top right-handed relievers. Since making his major league debut with the A’s in 2008, Brad Ziegler has amassed a 2.44 ERA in 596.2 innings and 14.1 in career WAR. The A’s haven’t produced a dominating sidearmer since Ziegler, but 2016 draft pick Nolan Blackwood might break that drought. In a draft in which the A’s went in heavy on pitching, Blackwood wasn’t one of the more high-profile names. However, the 14th-round pick from Memphis drew notice from A’s coaches the moment he arrived at their draft pick mini-camp. A’s scouts had noted that Blackwood threw harder than most sidearmers, and Blackwood arrived at mini-camp with his velocity as advertised, as well two solid secondary pitches. The A’s sent Blackwood to short-season Vermont to make his professional debut and he would later become the first pitcher from his A’s draft class to reach full-season ball.

Blackwood’s stay in Vermont was relatively short. He appeared in five games for the Lake Monsters, all save situations. He converted on four of those opportunities and allowed just two earned runs in 6.1 innings. Blackwood allowed six hits, one walk and he struck-out five. His GO/AO during his stint with Vermont was an incredible 6.00.

Blackwood joined the Beloit Snappers’ staff on July 20, and he spent the rest of the season in the Snappers’ bullpen. He had a rough debut outing for Beloit and two poor outings back-to-back in mid-August, but was otherwise dominant during his stretch in the Midwest League. Blackwood’s ERA was 4.05 in 20 innings, but he didn’t allow a run over his final seven outings (11.1 innings). He struck-out a batter an inning, walked five and posted a 2.08 GO/AO.

As expected with a sidearm pitcher, Blackwood’s groundball numbers were remarkable in his pro debut season. Of all balls hit into play, nearly 63% of them were hit on the ground. Batters connected on only eight flyballs off Blackwood all season (12%). A number of the hits Blackwood allowed during the season were of the infield variety.

Blackwood continued to impress during the A’s fall Instructional League. He showed improvement with his third-best pitch (his change-up) and began to experiment with changing the eye-level on his fastball so that it wasn’t always down in the strike-zone.

Nolan Blackwood 2016 Stats

VER 6.1 2.84 6 1 5 6.00
BEL 20 4.05 21 5 20 2.08

Like most sidearm pitchers, Blackwood’s two best offerings are his fastball and his breaking ball. Unlike most sidearm pitchers, however, Blackwood’s fastball isn’t a finesse pitch. It sat firmly in the low-90s this season, touching 93. He then paired that with a slow, sweeping slider that kept the hitters on their front foot and a developing change-up with some downward bite to it.

Stockton Ports’ pitching coach Steve Connelly saw Blackwood during Instructs and said that hitters had a difficult time finding their footing against him. 

“He’s got really good stuff. Fastball is firm. He’s got a little Frisbee slider that he throws and he has a good change-up,” Connelly said. “He fills up the ‘zone with that sidearm delivery. It’s not comfortable for any hitter to see.”

A’s minor league pitching coordinator Gil Patterson came away impressed with what he saw from Blackwood.

“He’s great. It’s firm from down there. He can spring that Frisbee slider like Brad Ziegler. He’s right in that category,” Patterson said. “He got better with the change-up and he started to elevate some fastballs in to lefties and up and away to righties. Most of the time, if someone is throwing from down there, they are always down. During Instructs, he challenged himself to get better and elevate and he did a better job of that.” 

Blackwood was a reliever all three years at Memphis and he posted solid numbers for the Tigers, but he threw more strikes during his pro debut than he did in college. Blackwood should remain a reliever, but he did throw several multiple-inning outings during his pro debut. As his change-up continues to improve, he should be able to turn over a line-up at least once.

Lefties hit Blackwood considerably better than righties, which is not uncommon for sidearm pitchers against opposite-hand hitters. Improving the change-up and continuing to change the eye-level of the fastball will help Blackwood against southpaws moving forward. He does a solid job of filling the strike-zone and gets enough swing-and-miss that he isn’t completely reliant on having a good defensive infield behind him, although that obviously helps any groundball pitcher.

A’s Director of Scouting Eric Kubota pegged Blackwood as a pitcher who could move quickly through the pro ranks.

“These guys [sinkerball relievers] work their way up through the minor leagues relatively quickly,” Kubota said shortly after the draft. “You can see him filling a role in the big leagues relatively quickly.”

The A’s will, as usual, have plenty of backlog amongst their minor league relief corps, but Blackwood is still a strong candidate to jump to High-A Stockton to start the 2017 season.

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