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Charlie Blackmon’s late breakout

To say there were no expectations around Charlie Blackmon’s short stints in 2011-2013 would probably still be overstating the excitement level. Never really much of a prospect, and when he was making noise it was largely attributed to being in hitter friendly parks and being above age for the level. A big bodied 6’3, 210 pound outfielder was confined to only the corners, and was blocked for a few years in Colorado as a regular until he finally had a full season in 2014.

As a 28-year-old in his first full season, Blackmon was nothing short of impressive, even astounding considering his prior resume. He hit for a 114 wRC+ in the first half of the year, buoyed heavily by a 171 mark in the opening month of April. He made lots of headlines at first before seriously cooling down to a 77 mark in the second half, and leaving many wondering if he was a one trick pony enjoying the thin air of Coors Field.

His next season in 2015 was more of the same, improving his wRC+ slightly from his 99 full season mark in 2014 to 103 in 2015, striking out a little more (16.4%, but still excellent), and also improving his walks. While he struggled on cut fastballs, every other pitch he saw more success on, including curveballs and changeups, as well as a traditional four seamer heater. Essentially, Blackmon had set the plate for a big year in 2016 and did not disappoint.

By now you probably know the story, hitting for a 131 wRC+ with 29 bombs, a .324 average and a strong .228 isolated slugging. And this past season he improved every mark up to 37, .331 and .270. Call it the Coors effect if you want, but those are serious improvements over a long enough time-frame to be consistent numbers, and fantasy (generally) isn’t park stabilized, so any effect he has there is worth every penny.

But Blackmon’s improvements haven’t just been a few extra fly balls finding the seats instead of the warning track (his 19.2% HR/FB ratio is just a two point improvement and a very mild fraction, a very stable and repeatable mark), he made actual adjustments at the dish. A career low strikeout hitter, Blackmon has increased his power swings in favor of the homer, but also accepting a few more whiffs. He saw a career high 18.6% strikeout rate, but came mostly on pitches in the zone. He cut down his chase rate from 34.0% to 30.2% (a large decrease), and saw the added benefit of a career high 9.0% walk rate.

Using this new approach, Blackmon was able to smash the fastball as good as anyone else, a 25.1 runs above average mark on the pitch; that’s good enough for seventh best in the entire league. He also managed a 15.0 mark on sinkers, good enough for third in the majors, and his 21.1 runs above average on the curveball was the best in baseball by 9.o runs. To put this into context, the difference between him at the one spot and Joey Votto at the second is still slightly less than the difference between Votto and the number 43 spot at Eddie Rosario. Blackmon isn’t just crushing the curve; he’s doing so at a rate in a league of his own.

Blackmon’s success was catalyzed by some help from opposing pitchers, increasing his curveball percentage from 7.7% last year to 10.1% this season. This certainly helps, considering how much he mashes the pitch, and we would usually consider his share of curves to drop heading into 2018. But what Blackmon has going for him is his great success against all other pitches. It’s not like every pitcher has a three, four or five pitch mix. Some guys can only throw a few pitches, and the curve might be what they’re forced to throw at him in fear of giving him too many fastballs. Blackmon’s varied skillset here works in his advantage in a big way, and there’s not a lot of game theory here to help the pitcher.

Charlie Blackmon is maybe a posterchild for a late career breakout in active players, and what he has been able to do is remarkable. Regardless of your feelings about Coors field, he crushes every pitch and forced pitchers to come to him. A tweaked approach as well as a swing void of any large holes combines for a great hitter who is going to crush no matter the competition or venue. Those in keeper leagues should not fear his pending free agency in 2018.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.

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