Charlie Blackmon and Mike Trout in the Same Sentence

Funny thing about the WAR leaderboard is, as much as it’s still very early in the season, familiar names are starting to find their places. There’s Mike Trout. Of course there’s Mike Trout. If “WAR” didn’t sound so damned good, the stat might be called Wins Below Trout, and one would reasonably expect him to lead baseball from now through the end of the year. There’s Chase Utley, and as much as the Phillies have fallen apart around him, Utley remains one of the better all-around players in baseball, despite the injuries he’s been through. There’s Troy Tulowitzki, and of course Tulowitzki is one of the elites for as long as he can stay on the field. There’s Justin Upton, who has flashes of superstardom. There’s Freddie Freeman, who’s young enough to have this much upside. There are good players, and real good players, and some early surprises, and among the early surprises is Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon.

If you read FanGraphs, you’re more than a casual baseball fan, so you’re more likely to have heard of Charlie Blackmon. Also, if you read FanGraphs, you’ve read Carson Cistulli, so you’re more likely still to have heard of Charlie Blackmon. Blackmon has long been one of Cistulli’s crushes, but the thing about Cistulli’s crushes is that he deliberately falls in love with the fringey and unheralded. Those players aren’t supposed to blossom into stars, not anywhere outside of Cistulli’s head, but here we are and we have to acknowledge what Blackmon’s been up to since winning a job with the Rockies out of camp.

The basics: Blackmon’s running a .260 ISO after going deep twice against the Giants on Monday. He’s walked as often as he’s struck out, and his early defensive numbers are positive, and he’s on pace for a double-digit WAR. He won’t do that, and he won’t end with a .400 BABIP, but prior to this season he was worth 1.0 WAR in 151 games. He’s 28 on the first day of July and he didn’t get to spring training with a job to lose. It’s fair to say we aren’t the only people who’ve been surprised by Blackmon — the Rockies themselves couldn’t have expected this kind of production.

Certain parts of his game, we knew about. Blackmon’s been thought of as a passable defensive center fielder, which means he’d make for an above-average defensive corner outfielder. He’s pretty quick and pretty athletic, so with the glove he does more good than bad. Also, Blackmon’s far from powerless. While it isn’t easy to evaluate the power potential of guys who spend half their time in Coors, here’s Blackmon hitting a long home run at sea level in 2013:

With Blackmon, the questions were more about discipline. He finished last year with seven times as many strikeouts as walks. That’s enough to knock a guy from potential starter to potential backup, but now there’s something interesting to observe. Blackmon has walked once per 16 plate appearances. He’s also struck out once per 16 plate appearances. In the early going, Charlie Blackmon is running a strikeout rate that’s about exactly a third of last year’s strikeout rate.

Which makes you stop and think. Strikeout rate is one of those things that’s supposed to remain incredibly stable. So it takes less time than with other stats to start to wonder if something’s up. We’re talking about a strikeout-rate difference of 12.7 percentage points. Because it’s so early, we can’t take that too seriously, but I want to give you a frame of reference. Since 1950, there are 11,779 pairs of consecutive seasons with at least 250 trips to the plate. In just 21 of those pairs, or less than 0.2%, did a player chop his strikeout rate by at least ten percentage points. at -12.7, Blackmon would actually rank fourth. Basically, players don’t often do what Blackmon’s done, just in terms of reducing the whiffs. To say nothing of the rest of his game.

But on that same note, I want to show you a table. So far this year, eight Rockies have batted at least 50 times. Let’s compare their 2013 and 2014 strikeout rates.

Player PA 2014 K% 2013 K% Difference
Charlie Blackmon 80 6.3% 19.0% -12.7%
Wilin Rosario 69 13.0% 23.4% -10.4%
Michael Cuddyer 67 10.4% 18.5% -8.1%
Justin Morneau 74 10.8% 17.3% -6.5%
Carlos Gonzalez 82 20.7% 27.1% -6.4%
Troy Tulowitzki 75 12.0% 16.6% -4.6%
DJ LeMahieu 68 14.7% 15.4% -0.7%
Nolan Arenado 86 15.1% 14.0% 1.1%

I don’t actually know exactly what to make of this. Six Rockies players are showing strikeout-rate decreases I’d consider significant off the top of my head. Wilin Rosario is right there with Blackmon, in terms of reducing his own whiffs. What this does do is make me think Blackmon isn’t responsible for the whole improvement, that there’s been something else going on. If it were only Blackmon, I’d be more willing to believe he’s genuinely this much better. Given the team-level pattern, it seems like we’ll be dealing with fractional responsibilities.

Last winter, the Rockies happened to hire Blake Doyle as a new hitting instructor. For all I know, that could be a factor. Equally or more likely to be a factor could be the Rockies’ schedule so far. I calculated the weighted average 2013 strikeout rate of all the pitchers the Rockies have faced in 2014, and their 2013 strikeout rate was lower than average. So if that’s any indication, it could be they’ve just faced more hittable arms.

But, all right. Look, we know Blackmon isn’t this good. Only Mike Trout is this good, and even that is still difficult to believe. The fact of the matter is that Blackmon’s always had a little defense. He’s always had a little power. And now he’s significantly chopped his strikeouts, more than anybody else on his own team. If there’s something to that last adjustment, it seems like Blackmon could be a legitimate longer-term regular. What does the history say about outfielders with this profile?

I pulled outfielder seasons from 1950 on. First, I narrowed the pool to guys with average or slightly above-average Defense ratings. Then, I looked for guys with ISOs that were between average and 25% better than average. Finally, out of the remaining pool, I looked for guys with strikeout rates lower than 75% of average. I wound up with 38 player-seasons, and they averaged 3.2 WAR per 600 plate appearances. So, these are pretty good non-star players.

That certainly required some assumptions. I had to assume Blackmon’s defense, I had to assume Blackmon’s power, and I had to give Blackmon credit for his reduced strikeouts. But, tweaking the filters doesn’t do much to change the general message. Blackmon was a discipline improvement away from seeming like a real big-league starter. That improvement might’ve been made, and the rest of his offense is also flourishing.

Blackmon might not even need to be platooned. The Rockies have been somewhat careful exposing Blackmon to lefties, but in his limited major-league experience, he actually has a reverse split. There’s a lot of BABIP in there, but Blackmon hasn’t been a platoon-side catastrophe. In the minors, Blackmon ran more normal-looking splits, with reduced power and increased whiffs against same-handed throwers, but Blackmon also walked against lefties and his contact rate was better than average. In essence, if the Rockies want to platoon Blackmon, they ought to let him show that he needs to be platooned first. He hasn’t shown that yet, and right now his game’s on a whole new level.

A guy who can run and hit the occasional knock doesn’t need to do a whole lot more to cut it as a starter. To what extent are you willing to believe in the improvement in Charlie Blackmon’s strikeout rate? How you feel about that is basically how you’ll feel about Charlie Blackmon. If nothing else, through his first 80 plate appearances he realistically could’ve done…nothing else. Carson Cistulli’s in charge of a lot of different fan clubs, but more than ever before, the Charlie Blackmon fan club is a fan club with other members.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

49 Responses to “Charlie Blackmon and Mike Trout in the Same Sentence”

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  1. tz says:

    Please make Wins Under Trout an official FanGraphs stat:

    Charlie Blackmon and his 0.1 WUT would thank you immensely.

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  2. Frank says:

    Charlie Blackmon’s strikeout rate is so far off of what is believable that you really have to wonder if this isn’t just a short flash of brilliance that’s going to be a distant memory by June. He didn’t become the world’s greatest “small ball” style hitter over the winter, and the season isn’t even a month in. Can’t buy it again, Charlie Blackmon, can’t buy it again.

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    • Commanding Ramorda says:

      So would it somehow be more believable that he’s cutting his strikeouts down for good if he were striking out twice as much?

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      • Catoblepas says:

        Yeah, a larger gap should not make you less likely to believe it’s real. You should regress a larger gap more on a percentage basis (i.e., a 10% drop in the first 25 games might indicate a true talent 4-6% drop, whereas a 20% drop might indicate a true talent 6-8% drop), but it should make you more likely to believe, not less.

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      • Frank says:

        Nay, it is simply a good reminder that this sample size is indeed small and hard to read too much into. And also a reminder that it’s one thing to say strike out rates to commonly stabilize at around his number of PA this year, and another thing to assume that in his specific case that they have stabilized. Good for him if he’s finally living up to his potential, just making a casual note about the logic of statistics.

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    • Well he’s at 80 PAs. As Jeff intimates in the article, that’s roughly where contact rate stabilizes. I’m a Rockies fan and as surprised as anyone about what he’s doing. I expected Corey Dickerson to win the CF job and turn heads with his hitting, not Charlie Blackmon.

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    • Frank says:

      Does anybody remember that time I was right and everyone who disagreed with me was wrong?

      Pepperidge Farm remembers.

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  3. Cicero says:

    Blackmon had above average K% in the minors and if you look at guys like Helton,Tulo, and Holliday their first 500 or so PA had pretty high K rates too, Blackmon is unlikely to be a super star but was an 800+ OPS CF with a 350wOBA. This is also his prime Ludwick had a season when he went insane around this age, Blackmon has been decent always but struggled to he on the field ahead of talented OF like Cargo, Fowler, Cuddyer(I Know), Smith and Hawpe

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  4. Bil Bo Baggins says:

    Contact rate up 8%, whiff rate cut in half to Brantley levels

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  5. Lutz says:

    The 25 y/o Dickerson was the statistical superior and presumed “#3” OF in the pre-season.

    Lucky for him Cuddyer, CarGo, and Morneau all have injury histories (one down already) and Cuddyer could be trade bait.

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  6. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Trivia; Trout struck out four times in game the other day, Ted Williams never struck out four times, and only struck out three times twice in a game in his 19 years. Wins below Williams??

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Trivia; Blackmon’s middle name is Cobb.

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    • Stan Gable says:

      Former college pitcher too. I seemingly always liked him as a prospect and this is cool to see.

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  8. nealos says:

    as a boulder resident, rockies fan, and blackmon owner in my fantasy league, I can absolutely verify that this is not a fluke :) …it’s karmic balance for tortuous years of fandom for Dexter Fowler (I even bought a jersey, you guys). It’s the only thing that makes sense.

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  9. Brian says:

    He’s always been a good hitter. Just been waiting for a chance to play on a consistent basis!

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  10. Brian says:

    IMO, he’s a less disciplined David Murphy (but Blackmon is the better defender)

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  11. Bil Bo Baggins says:

    I always though Charlie was a Black Mon

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  12. Iron says:

    I humbly add Devin Mesoraco to the surprise WARE leaders list. He’s at 1.3 WAR, good for number 5, even though he did not show up in your list because he is not qualifying, having done it in only 10 games after starting the season on the DL.

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  13. Dylan says:

    Isn’t it kind of ridiculous to look at WAR this early in the season? There’s no way the defensive numbers are meaningful at this point.

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  14. Visitor says:

    I feel fairly confident that Mike Trout would never lead the league in Wins Below Trout. In fact, I would boldly predict that he would end every season of his career with a WBT of 0.0.

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  15. Albert Pujols says:

    Meanwhile, my strikeout rate is down to 8%, while my power and contact brother E5 is at 22.5% (and falling)

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  16. Lex Logan says:

    It would be nice to be able to qualify based on WAR. Mesoraco is fifth in WAR, and of course first in wRC+ if you look at 40+ PA’s.

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  17. Ghost Hands says:

    Feels like we could be headed for a Matt Carpenter-lite breakout once that BABIP starts to correct itself.

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  18. Mr Baseball says:

    The stats movement has been great at validating player performance and value over a meaningful statistical sample. It’s not very good at identifying breakout players, since it lacks tons of relevent data, which would include what measures the player did to change his approach in the off season, practice time, workouts, diet, mental focus, etc…. Few players breakout, so the data we use is usually consistent with future predicted performance…’s the breakouts we all like to spot. I think this breakout is legit, but not this legit. None of us will really know until there is more data to back it up.

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    • tz says:

      Good point.

      And I wonder how much of a “breakout” is really a matter of perception. For Blackmon and Brian Dozier, I had been lulled into thinking that their mediocre hitting numbers in their young MLB careers were becoming a true best-estimate of their future MLB performance. In actuality, both of them had above-average wRC+ in the minors, but it’s easy to lose patience on a younger player “breaking out”. So when the time comes that they do, it becomes more of a surprise than it perhaps should have been.

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  19. Mr Baseball says:

    We know that few players breakout, the data says so. But we also know that there is always someone breaking out. The clues are sometimes there in the data, but more often they are not. We still only collect part of the data puzzle.

    Who saw Carlos Gomez breaking into this? He’s possibly the 3rd best player in the game right now.

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  20. Andy says:

    So is Trout’s 7% increase in K rate over last year significant? And his big decrease in walk rate?

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  21. DenverGregg says:

    You mentioned Blake Doyle. He’s clearly a good batting coach, particularly well-suited to working with young guys. You neglected to mention who he replaced: Dante Bichette – perhaps the most ill-suited MLB batting coach of all time given the way he hacked. I’m worried for Arenado that he hasn’t shown marked improvement in strikeouts. Was last year his peak?

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  22. Andrew says:

    As a Rockies fan, my impression of the platooning so far is that it’s less about limiting Blackmon’s exposure to lefties and more about finding some ABs for Drew Stubbs since he’s awful against righties.

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  23. UncleGene says:

    I was surprised that the author did not analyze the strikeout rate when Blackmon appeared as a starter vs. appearing as a pinch hitter. That might shed some additional light on things. Know he was used as a PH frequently last season; also know that there is a huge difference in starting and entering in the 8th.
    Furthermore, getting to start nearly everyday and not once a series might have a major impact as well – that’s harder to quantify numerically though.

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    • tz says:

      Actually, his K rate as a PH was a little better, though in just 15 PA last year.

      But I do think you’re absolutely right on playing full-time vs. part-time, especially for the Rockies. It has to be a huge adjustment to face major-league pitching at sea level when you’re used to facing pitchers at a high altitude (COL and most of the PCL). Getting reps in on a regular basis has to be huge, as well as not having the pressure to produce or ride the bench.

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  24. tz says:

    April 24, 2014: Charlie Blackmon overtakes Mike Trout for the #1 slot on the WAR leaderboard:

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