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|
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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