Clayton Blackburn is a lesson in not letting a player's Draft round fool you.
Selected by San Francisco in the 16th round of the 2011 Draft, Blackburn's Draft status largely dropped because of the perception that the Oklahoma native's commitment to play at the University of Oklahoma was solid. Despite being considered one of the stronger arms in a state that also included righties Dylan Bundy and Archie Bradley, Blackburn watched 506 players have their name called before his.
Since then, he's made the Giants look like geniuses, going 18-10 with a 2.87 ERA in three Minor League seasons. Blackburn has notched 311 strikeouts over 297 2/3 innings while walking just 56 batters. In 2013 he climbed from the Giants' No. 11 prospect to MLB.com's No. 93 prospect (and the Giants' No. 2).
MiLB.com: You had a terrific year in 2013. What were you happy with?
Blackburn: I was happy with the overall season. This year I had some ups and downs. Early on I struggled a little bit, after a good start. I had to jump back on, getting back in the bullpen with my pitching coach and finding out what was going on and where I was struggling. Once we figured that out, I finished up strong and I had a great season.
MiLB.com: What was it like being part of that rotation in San Jose with Kyle Crick, Ty Blach, Adalberto Mejia and Edwin Escobar?
Clayton Blackburn: It was great, you learn a lot from those guys. We pick each other's brains, we chart each other in the stands and you see how they pitch to guys and you kind of see what they do differently. You learn a lot that way. They're good guys, they're fun to hang around with, talk baseball with and kid around with. We were basically with each other last year and this year, and hopefully we'll be together again next year. You learn a lot from those guys and I enjoyed every bit of it.
MiLB.com: What did you learn from them?
Blackburn: Just little stuff, like maybe different grips on a certain pitch or how they set up hitters. Just little things, nothing big -- we're all a little different. It's mostly just about being open to trying new things. They might have a certain grip on a changeup and you might try it, and vice versa, you might have something they might like. I think it helps us grow better as pitchers.
MiLB.com: Was there ever a feeling of one-upmanship between you guys?
Blackburn: We're all really competitive people -- someone has a good outing and you're watching from the dugout, you're next to pitch the next day -- you always want to go out there and top their outing. I think it's really good for us. It helps us compete against each other, never being satisfied. I think that drove us to be better pitchers and develop as players.
MiLB.com: Were you ever concerned about pitching in an offensive league like the California League?
Blackburn: It definitely lingers in the back of your mind -- you walk outside and the wind is blowing 40 mph out when the fence is only playing 340 feet. It's in the back of your mind, but as soon as the game gets going, you don't really think about it too much.There's cheap home runs and ground balls that get through that shouldn't, but that's part of the learning process is learning how to deal with that.
I think the biggest thing is it made me more cautious about keeping the ball down in the zone. Sometimes it's good, but sometimes if you're too conscious of it you leave a ball up. That's the biggest thing, if the ball is not down in the zone, it;s gonna get hit around the ballpark. When the the ball is down, you're going to give up hits, but they're more likely to be singles or weak doubles. If you just keep the ball down in the zone and you're thinking about that then you're more likely to have success.
MiLB.com: San Jose tends to be a prime spot for the Giants to send their rehabbing guys. This year Pablo Sandoval, Angel Pagan and Ryan Vogelsong spent some time there. How exciting is it to have those guys in the clubouse for a few days?
Blackburn: It's a cool thing. You get these guys that come in and they know a lot about baseball and you try not to bother them too much. You listen to them talk and how they prepare for the game. Great guys -- they buy our postgame meals -- really fortunate to have those guys come down and talk to us.
MiLB.com: How frustrating was it to not get picked until the 16th round?
Blackburn: Some things were said about me and my family that really weren't true, which I think hurt my Draft status. I was with my family that whole day -- it was a great expierence. As soon as your name was called, it's a great relief. As of right now, it's worked out for me -- I don't regret anything that's happened.
MiLB.com: You've maintained a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate throughout your career, what is it about your stuff that makes that combo happen?
Blackburn: For me it's never about striking people out -- it's about getting ahead in the count. If you're throwing strike one, it makes it a lot easier to get people out. There's a certain time and place to put people away with the striekout, but for me it's attacking hitters early and trying to get them to put the ball in play in three pitches. I don't have the mindest of going out there and striking out 10 guys a game. It's more that I want to go out there and pitch deep into the game and give my team a chance to win, and if the strikeouts come that's great.
MiLB.com: Is that something you go into every at-bat thinking -- that you want to be out of it in three pitches or less?
Blackburn: That's the goal every time. If I can give up a single in three pitches or less I'm not mad about that either. If I can go up there and every batter is three pitches or less, than I'm more often than not going to be successful. It keeps your defense in it. You're going to give up hits here and there -- that's inevitable. If you're going 6-7 pitches an at-bat, you're not going to last long in the game -- your defense gets on their heels and they might make an error or not get to a ball they normally would. That's big for me -- keep my defense in the game and working quick.
MiLB.com: Was it tough to get to the championship round in the Cal League playoffs and not being able to come away with a title?
Blackburn: We clinched in the first-half -- we had a good year all year. We played an exicting series with Visalia -- we won in five games and we were very excited. Then, when we got to the championship series, things didn't fall into place for us. That's baseball. They're a good team, they were hot at the time, they played good baseball, didn't make mistakes. It was disappointing -- you don't want to see anybody else celebrating in front of you on your field. At the same time it was a good experience -- you learn a lot from it and you learn how to play baseball in those tight situations.
MiLB.com: Speaking of championships, you're playing for a team that's won two World Series titles over the last four years. What's it like to be part of an organization that's had as much success as the Giants have over the years?
Blackburn: It's great, people ask me all the time -- they always hear the Giants organization is about developing players. Good coaching staff, good coordinators and I agree 100 percent -- from top to bottom, just a class organization. A team that knows what it's doing obviously, and it seems that they do it from within the system. I feel like they're big on that and it's exciting.
MiLB.com: Who are some of the guys who've really helped you?
Blackburn: [Giants vice president of baseball operations] Bobby Evans -- great guy, great person to talk to. [Assistant general manager] Dick Tidrow -- one of the most knowledagable guys in the game that I've ever met. Mainly our pitching coaches -- last year I had Mike Caldwell, and this year I had Mike Couchee -- both had big league time and both have been around the game for a long time. Then you have good managers who lead by example and show you how you're supposed to act both on and off the field.
MiLB.com: Is there anything you've been working on over the winter for next year?
Blackburn: Kind of polishing up all the skills I have now is the biggest thing. Being able to locate more often and have a sharper breaking ball. I've been working on having more of a true slider. I've thrown a curveball, then kind of a slurve -- now I'm working on more of a slider. Hopefully next year I'll be able to throw a cutter.
MiLB.com: I saw on twitter (from @C_Blackburn16) some pictures and references to you hunting. Is that your favorite thing to do in the offseason?
Blackburn: That's my getaway from baseball. I like to do a lot of fishing and golfing right when I get home, but as soon as duck hunting season that's kind of what my offseason is. I'll work out, go duck hunting in the morning, take a nap and go work out in the afternoon with a couple of guys from different organizations. You meet a lot of people out there, it's a blast being out there -- it's a good way to get away from baseball.
MiLB.com: You meet with people from other organizations?
Blackburn: We have a couple of guys that are down here that I work out with that we play catch and do different things -- guys I've never met before. One plays for the Phillies, Chad Carman, another guy on the Nationals, Blake Schwartz, Ty Hensley from the Yankees and Andrew Heaney from the Marlins. We're all a pretty close group now -- we met last year through our workout program. we keep in contact all the time, and whenever everybody's home we all workout together. It's an enjoyable offseason.
MiLB.com: Does it help having a group of friends who play ball and are able to do things like hunt?
Blackburn: That's the biggest thing, we're all trying to get away from the game and get our mind away from it. You have to reboot and start again. It's a grind -- you play 140 games a year, it's a grind. Being able to come home with these guys and be playing the same sport at the professional level but come home and not even talk about baseball and have fun and hunt and fish -- it's a lot of fun.