Another Weird Charlie Blackmon-ism

Charlie Blackmon is an atypical human being.

For one thing, he is a professional baseball player, meaning he is in the extreme upper echelon of athletic ability. But he is atypical even in his personal life, and his recent success has only highlighted his eccentric personality. He still drives a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee that he got in high school. He once had to be rescued on the side of the highway by DJ LeMahieu when he ran out of gas. He buys his clothes from Amazon. And of course, he is easily recognized by his impressive beard-and-mullet combo (the latter of which is pronounced “mu-lay” according to Blackmon).

Based on all his quirks, it should be no surprise just how unique his major-league career has been. He didn’t see regular playing time until his age-28 season, an age when some guys are already entering free agency. Despite this late start, he has steadily grown into an MVP candidate. In 2014, his first full season, Blackmon posted 2.0 fWAR, the exact threshold for a starting caliber player. In the three subsequent seasons, he posted an fWAR of 2.3, 4.1, and 6.5. I thought it seemed rather strange to have back-to-back seasons with ~2 WAR improvement, so I went to the leaderboards.

I searched for all batters with a minimum of 400 PAs in each of the past three seasons, producing a sample of 111 players. Then, I calculated the difference between each player’s 2015 WAR and 2016 WAR, and did the same for 2016 to 2017. This gave me two year-to-year improvements for each player, and I threw both values onto the scatter plot below, with Blackmon highlighted in purple.

2015 2017 WAR Improvements

Players generally don’t see improvements like this in back-to-back seasons; Blackmon is about as far to the top-right as you can get in this plot. Of course, value can come from many different places, and a player might make large defensive improvements one year and large offensive improvements the next. While Blackmon did see some improvement in his defensive metrics this season, the bulk of his improvements have come while batting. To get the following plot, I followed the same method as above, this time for wRC+.

2015 2017 w RC Improvements

Again, we see Blackmon floating towards the top right. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and if a batter enjoys a period of success, pitchers will generally approach him differently to gain an advantage. This is why players generally go through cycles, following the push and pull of the game. The past few years, Blackmon seems to be part of a small group of players who have been immune to this tug-of-war effect. He has stayed one step ahead of the pitchers, not only maintaining his gains but improving upon them as time goes on.

How has he found these improvements? Between 2015 and 2016, his walk rate and strikeout rate remained fairly constant, so he must have been getting much better results on balls in play. Sure enough, his batting average increased by 37 points and his ISO increased by 65 points, giving him 49 extra points of wOBA overall. At the time, Jeff Sullivan looked under the hood and found that Blackmon’s GB% was trending downward, and he had been attacking the low strike more so than ever before. Presumably, he realized that his swing path was conducive to driving low pitches into the air, and that balls in the air are more valuable, so he made the adjustment and enjoyed a power spike.

That all makes sense, but it begs the question: how did he improve even more in 2017? If he doubled down on the fly-ball revolution, he risked becoming Ryan Schimpf or Trevor Story.

Much to my surprise, the opposite happened – his GB% actually returned back to his career average. He increased his rate of ground balls, but he still managed raised his ISO by another 42 points. Before you cry BABIP or Coors Field, I’ll briefly note that in both years, his wOBA and xwOBA increased by approximately the same amount, so something real is going on here. In this case, I think he was finding more success on batted balls based on the pitches he didn’t put in play. Stay with me here.

In 2017, Blackmon’s strikeout rate rose by about 2.5%. This is what people in the industry call “not good,” but hold on, his walk rate also rose by…about 2.5%. This isn’t a player who suddenly developed a swing-and-miss problem to sell out for power, this is a player who is intentionally going deeper into counts. When a batter is more selective about the pitches he goes after, he is putting fewer balls in play in early counts, which leads to an increase in both walks and strikeouts simultaneously.

Let’s look at it a different way: Z-swing% measures the percentage of pitches inside the zone that a player swings at, and O-swing% measures the percentage of pitches outside the zone that a player swings at. Generally speaking, you want to swing at strikes and take balls, so you want your Z-swing% to be higher than your O-swing%; the larger the difference, the better your plate discipline.

In 2016, the difference between Blackmon’s Z-swing% and O-swing% ranked in the 9th percentile – he’s always been a bit of a free-swinging leadoff hitter. But in 2017, that difference increased by 4.7%, pushing him into the 26th percentile. While he’s still more aggressive than average, he has become decidedly less so, being more selective about the pitches he attacks and remaining comfortable in deep counts. By swinging at the right pitches, he’s able to avoid the easy outs that result from poor contact on pitches outside of the zone.

We have every reason to believe that Charlie Blackmon just had a career year, and he will never sniff an MVP race again in his career. But then again, we had every reason to believe the same thing last year. When it comes to Charlie, I have some advice: if you expect him to do something, he’s probably getting ready to do the exact opposite. It’s about time we stop trying to figure him out.

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Jacob is a mechanical engineer who spends an unhealthy amount of his free time researching baseball.

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Who were the other 2 guys by Blackmon in the WAR improvements graph?