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The Charlie Blackmon Phenomenon

When discussing the positive surprises of the first month of the 2014 baseball season, the words “Milwaukee Brewers” and “Charlie Blackmon” are sure to come up very early in the conversation. While Blackmon has clearly not been the most valuable player on his own club – Troy Tulowitzki says hi – he does deserve every bit of attention and scrutiny that has come his way. Who is Charlie Blackmon? Where did he come from, figuratively? What is he, and where might he be going? Let’s look at the track record and attempt to make some educated guesses.

When the Rockies selected Blackmon in the second round of the 2008 draft with the 72nd overall selection, it was considered an overdraft by most. He was recruited by Georgia Tech as a two-way player out of Young Harris Junior College, but wound up pitching only two innings at Tech, finding a home as their leadoff man and a regular outfielder, though not their everyday centerfielder. He was about to turn 22 when he was drafted, and despite a very strong junior season, had yet to establish the type of proven track record with the bat – wood or aluminum – that teams search for high in the draft. Despite this fact, the Rockies, to their credit, were undaunted, and pulled the trigger on Blackmon.

At his relatively advanced age for a college junior, the Rockies were hoping for early minor league success, and quick advancement. While his .307-.370-.433 line, with 30 steals, in his first full pro season at High-A Modesto was respectable, it took place in a hitters’ league, and didn’t exactly scream “prospect”. Neither did his .297-.360-.484 season at AA in 2010, when he celebrated his 24th birthday on July 1.

His closest thing to a “breakthrough” occurred in the summer of 2011, when he tore up the hitter-friendly AAA Pacific Coast League at a .337-.393-.572 clip over 58 games and earned his first major league opportunity. Not only was the league hitter-friendly, but so was his Colorado Springs home park. If PCL stats in general are to be taken with a grain of salt, Colorado Springs numbers should be taken with a full tablespoon.

Each season, I utilize a system that evaluates minor league prospects both by their performance and age relative to their minor league level. Performers with respect to either criteria qualify for the list, which usually numbers around 300 position players, and extreme performers with respect to both reside at or near the top. Virtually every major league regular qualified for this list at some point during their minor league career, with the occasional exception of an all-glove, no-hit catcher or shortstop. The list is basically a master follow list for professional scouting coverage – and Charlie Blackmon never made the list. He barely missed in 2011 – by a day age-wise, and fractionally, performance-wise, but miss it he did. He never made a Baseball America Top 100 list, either, an admittedly more stringent criteria.

Blackmon continued to fly well beneath the radar in his first two major league trials in 2011 and 2012, before doing just a bit better last season. Though his .309-.336-.467 2013 line appears quite solid on the surface, there are two major cautionary factors that must be taken into consideration. First, there’s his awful 49/7 K/BB ratio. While his K rate was acceptable, his BB rate was off-the-charts bad. It should not have been a surprise, as he had never walked more than 39 times in a minor league season. His K rates had always been better than league average in the minors, but were never so good that warning bells would signal this as an area of future strength at the major league level.

The other significant factor is the Coors Field effect. I discussed this in detail in my preseason article on the Rockies – yes, I thought the Rockies had the potential to contend, and no, I didn’t see the Blackmon thing coming – Coors makes average hitters into stars, and can fool you into thinking well below average ones deserve their everyday jobs. Based on my own calculations utilizing granular batted-ball data, the overall, fly ball and line drive park factors for Coors Field (by field sector) in 2013 were:

OVERALL: LF= 116.9 LCF= 117.1 CF= 125.7 RCF= 161.5 RF= 118.5 ALL= 127.8
FLY: 118.6 166.3 149.9 287.9 150.4 176.4
LINE DRIVE: 110.8 109.9 106.2 124.7 98.2 109.6

Now there’s some help for lefties. All of Blackmon’s accomplishments must be placed in this context.

So what happened to turn Blackmon from the reasonable contributor he appeared to be last season to 2nd-in-the-NL-in-wOBA-guy in 2014, with a .359-.398-.590 line entering Monday’s games? Look no further than his K rate, which for no apparent reason has plunged from 19.0% in 2013 to 7.7% in 2014, the second best in the NL. This has been keyed by a startling plunge in his swing-and-miss rate from 8.7% last season to 4.4% thus far in 2014. Yup – he has cut his swing-and-miss rate in half, and his K rate by almost 150%, in a very short period of time. These things do not happen every day.

To become more familiar with relative variability of swing-and-miss rates of high-contact players, I identified players who had seasonal swing-and-miss rates of 5.0% or better in three or more batting average title-qualifying seasons over the past decade. They appear below:

L.Castillo 4 2.6% 4.2% 1.8%
Pierre 6 2.8% 4.8% 2.0%
Scutaro 5 2.8% 4.8% 1.5%
Eckstein 4 3.1% 4.1% 2.2%
B.Giles 5 3.5% 5.0% 2.5%
Span 4 3.5% 4.4% 2.7%
Polanco 6 3.6% 5.7% 2.5%
Hatteberg 3 3.6% 5.0% 3.0%
Jm.Carroll 3 3.7% 6.1% 2.6%
Callaspo 5 3.7% 4.4% 2.5%
Vizquel 4 3.8% 5.4% 3.0%
Prado 5 3.8% 4.6% 3.2%
Kendall 4 3.9% 5.3% 3.2%
Theriot 3 3.9% 5.6% 2.9%
Pedroia 5 4.0% 5.2% 2.7%
Podsednik 3 4.1% 5.4% 3.2%
Loretta 3 4.2% 5.8% 3.4%
Mauer 5 4.2% 5.9% 3.1%
DeJesus 4 4.6% 5.6% 3.7%
B.Roberts 4 4.7% 6.0% 3.0%
Andrus 4 4.7% 5.2% 4.3%
Furcal 3 4.8% 5.5% 3.7%
V.Martinez 4 5.0% 7.0% 3.1%
I.Suzuki 5 5.1% 6.2% 4.0%
Markakis 3 5.1% 6.6% 3.7%
Figgins 3 5.2% 6.4% 4.0%
Helton 3 5.4% 8.5% 3.0%
Rollins 4 5.4% 7.2% 3.6%
——— ———
Kinsler 2 4.9% 6.4% 3.1% 14 = 3.5%
Brantley 2 3.3% 3.8% 2.7% 14 = 3.4%
Aoki 2 4.1% 4.9% 3.3% 14 = 4.9%
——— ———
Lucroy 6.0% 7.0% 5.4% 14 = 4.3%
Lowrie 6.7% 7.7% 5.4% 14 = 4.9%
Blackmon 7.0% 8.7% 6.1% 14 = 4.4%

The players above are sorted by career average swing-and-miss percentage, going back to 2002. The left-most column indicates each player’s number of qualifying seasons over the past decade with a swing-and-miss rate of 5.0% or better. The “HI” and “LO” columns indicate each player’s highest and lowest seasonal swing-and-miss rates, with a minimum plate appearance threshold of only 100. Even with such a low threshold, no player on this list ever had a single season with a swing-and-miss rate as high as Blackmon’s 2013 level of 8.7% – which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t all that high. The vast majority of these players’ high seasons were nowhere near 8.7%.

Thinking a bit more about the players on this list, they can be divided into a few basic categories. There are stars, like Brian Giles, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki, Todd Helton and Jimmy Rollins, for whom a low swing-and-miss percentage was simply part of a multi-faceted offensive package that included at least some home run power. On the other extreme end are some players whose contact ability represents the sum total of their batting ability. Ryan Theriot, late-career Jason Kendall and some of the speed players like Juan Pierre and Scott Podsednik fit here.

Another group of players rely more on minimization of negative outcomes than on generation of positive ones for their success – Marco Scutaro, Placido Polanco, Scott Hatteberg and Elvis Andrus fit best here. The last category includes players whose contact ability combined with a very favorable home park environment turns them into above to well above average performers. The clearest example of this is Dustin Pedroia – he makes consistent contact, not much of it authoritative, especially in the air, but Fenway gives him enough help on fly balls to make him appear to be a star hitter. This is what Charlie Blackmon has done so far in 2014 with the help of Coors Field, and is pretty much what he can aspire to be going forward.

Below the main table, data has been added for three players, Ian Kinsler, Michael Brantley and Norichika Aoki, who are on pace to add their third season with a swing-and-miss rate below 5.0%. Also, three other players – Jonathan Lucroy, Jed Lowrie and Blackmon – were added, all of whom are on pace for their first sub-5.0% swing-and-miss season, and whose drop to that level must be considered significant compared to their career norms.

For a little more perspective on what Blackmon is right now, and where he might be headed, let’s compare the 2013 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for Blackmon and Michael Brantley:

Blackmon % REL PCT
K 19.0% 105 68
BB 2.7% 34 1
POP 6.7% 85 38
FLY 27.7% 96 43
LD 27.2% 126 97
GB 38.5% 92 26
Brantley % REL PCT
K 11.0% 55 10
BB 6.5% 83 28
POP 4.8% 61 11
FLY 25.3% 89 24
LD 24.7% 116 88
GB 45.2% 106 76

FLY 0.315 0.778 115 62
LD 0.698 0.925 114 90
GB 0.280 0.307 141 82
ALL BIP 0.382 0.578 136 88
ALL PA 0.306 0.325 0.464 118 78
FLY 0.187 0.463 41 55
LD 0.605 0.832 88 97
GB 0.277 0.277 128 104
ALL BIP 0.318 0.443 87 91
ALL PA 0.280 0.328 0.390 102 107

To put Blackmon’s 2014 K rate decrease into perspective, consider that his 2013 K rate percentile rank of 68 for 2013 would drop all the way to 3 in 2014 using the same methodology. This would actually bring the plate appearance outcome frequencies for these two players closely in line. Both walk infrequently, have shown the ability to maintain a high line drive rate, and now, in 2014, strike out relatively infrequently.

The production by BIP type tables exclude the OBP effects of HBP, and count all SH and SF as outs. The “REL PRD” column measures actual production on each BIP type relative to MLB average, scaled to 100, and the “ADJ PRD” columns adjust for context, weeding out the effects of ballparks, speed, luck, etc., to isolate a player’s true talent level.

First, consider that simply changing Blackmon’s K and BB rates to their 2014 levels transforms his 2013 line to .346-.386-.525, just his exaggerated Coors Field performance this season (all six of his homers are at home) away from his current numbers. Secondly, notice the similarity of the two players’ ADJ PRD on all BIP in 2013 – 88 for Blackmon, 91 for Brantley, both due to well below average fly ball authority. Blackmon’s fly balls got pumped up by the Coors effect from 62 to 115, while Brantley’s are further discounted by Jacobs Field from 55 to 41. That’s basically all that separated these players in 2013.

Michael Brantley stands 6’2″, 200, and turns 27 next week. Charlie Blackmon stands 6’3″, 210, and turns 28 on July 1. Both bat lefthanded, and virtually all of their power is to dead pull. There are many similarities here. There are also many differences, however.

Brantley has an established track record of minor league performance, where he was always one of the youngest performers at each level. 2014 is very likely to be his third consecutive season with a swing-and-miss rate below 5.0% – this isn’t a shocking new development for Brantley. He has never hit more than 10 homers in a professional season – he reached that number last season, after hitting only 16 in 2477 minor league at-bats over six seasons. He has five already this season, playing in a relatively pitcher-friendly environment. Jimmy Rollins hit all of 36 homers in 2259 minor league at-bats, never hitting more than 12 in a season, and was always among the youngest at each minor league level. He has gone on to hit 202 MLB homers, including 30 in an MVP season. Brantley fairly closely fits the Rollins profile, and just might be morphing into a star as we speak.

Blackmon has come out of nowhere to post his microscopic 2014 swing-and-miss rate. History suggests that players who perennially post such swing-and-miss levels don’t come out of nowhere to do so. He has made a very impressive adjustment to major league pitching – and their adjustment back is forthcoming. Blackmon will need to prove he can lay off pitchers’ pitches out of the zone, ones on which weak contact is the best possible outcome, and there is nothing in his history to suggest he will successfully do so. He doesn’t need to be this good to help the Rockies, however. He simply needs to continue his Garrett Atkins impression – he of the 4.6% swing-and-miss rate in 2005 and 4.3% in 2006 – in the short to intermediate term.

Blackmon hits the ball just hard enough to take advantage of the Coors effect, plays solid enough defense in the middle of the field to add real value, and – most importantly in Coors – has learned to make contact his friend. In the near term, he projects as the prototypical average player made to look quite a bit better than that by his unique home park. He’s probably no Michael Brantley, though.