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Blanton belongs with top hurlers

Blanton belongs with top young hurlers

PHOENIX -- In 2005, Joe Blanton tied the Oakland record for victories by a rookie with 12, set the Oakland record with 32 starts, and his 3.53 ERA was the best among all big-league rookies with at least 100 innings logged.

Last season he tied then-ace Barry Zito for the team lead in wins, and his 16 victories were the fifth-most in Oakland history by a second-year starter.

Yet when talk around baseball turns to the best young hurlers in the game, the 26-year-old righty barely gets mentioned.

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Why? More than likely, it's a combination of factors. But Blanton's 4.82 ERA and unsightly .309 opponents' batting average -- the highest OBA by a big-league starter with more than 15 wins since World War II -- certainly rank near the top the list.

And if you wanted to make a case in Blanton's favor, Friday was not the night to do it. His first pitch against the D-backs at Phoenix Municipal Stadium was blooped into left field for a double, starting a string of five consecutive hits that including a mammoth three-run homer to left-center by Carlos Quentin.

The D-backs batted around in that inning, Chad Tracy added a solo homer in the third and Blanton left his third start of the spring with a line of seven earned runs on nine hits over 3 1/3 ugly innings.

Yet according to one longtime and respected scout, who works for one of Oakland's American League rivals and was on hand for Friday night's first-inning beatdown, Blanton does belong in any conversation about top young pitchers.

As long as those conversing are willing to evaluate Blanton in fairly unconventional terms.

"Almost every baseball man, and pretty much every pitcher you ask, will tell you that ERA and opponents' batting average tell you how good a pitcher is," said the scout. "And I don't necessarily disagree. But every once in a while, a kid comes along that you can't really judge on that alone, and I think Blanton is one of them.

"He's one of those guys who probably won't ever have a top-10 ERA, and he's probably always going to give up a fair amount of hits. But I think he'll always win a lot of games, and the last time I checked, the team that wins the most is the one that gets rings at the end of the year."

Count A's manager Bob Geren -- and former A's manager Ken Macha -- among those who agree.

"Of course you'd like to see him lower that ERA," Geren said earlier this spring. "But if you offered me 16 more wins this year from him, with the same ERA, I'd take it."

Macha, who last October was questioned by some for leaving Blanton out of his playoff rotation, struck a similar chord.

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"It was kind of funny that I took some heat for not starting him," Macha said. "It was mostly fans, and it always, 'How can you leave a guy with 16 wins out?' Well, what happened to ERA and [opponents'] batting average being so important?

"I think it showed that no matter what you hear from so-called baseball people, wins are still what matters to fans."

How does Blanton manage to win so often despite giving up a lot of hits and runs? The scout thinks it starts with heart.

"Certain kids might come up with great arms, great stuff, but they don't know how to compete," he said. "With Blanton, he doesn't have the greatest arm, and his stuff is very good but not lights-out, but he competes real, real well. You'd never know it just from watching his demeanor, but he's a tough son of a gun out there.

"That's why I wouldn't read much into whatever he does in spring games. When it matters, he gets tough when he's in trouble, he handles the middle part of the order well and he pitches well late with a lead. That's how you win a bunch of big-league games."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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