Charlie Blackmon Decides Not to Deal With Doubt

I don’t know if Charlie Blackmon is baseball’s most underrated player. Probably not. There are a lot of very good players. But just in case you don’t know exactly what’s up: Last season, Blackmon finished ninth among position players in WAR. Over the past three seasons, Blackmon has ranked 22nd, between George Springer and Kyle Seager. Blackmon is a center fielder who just finished with a top-30 expected wOBA. The year before that, he was in the top 40. Charlie Blackmon is very good, and, depending on your own personal thresholds, you might well say that Charlie Blackmon is great. He’s been lined up to be a part of the upcoming massive free-agent market.

But Blackmon has decided to take himself off the market entirely. Or, the team and the agency have decided, with Blackmon’s final approval. You don’t often see premium free agents sign extensions so close to the end of a contract, but Blackmon has agreed to an extra five years with the Rockies, with a $94-million guarantee. It’s more complicated than that, but the take-home point is that Blackmon is going to stick around in Colorado. Clearly, he’s fond of it there, and he’d hardly be the first player to decide that free agency appears less appealing than it used to.

Don’t get me wrong: Blackmon didn’t sign away his free agency for a bargain. Quite the opposite! Blackmon decided to forgo the chance to shop around, but he’s come away with a strong deal for himself. As noted, he’ll get five years and $94 million, covering his age 32-36 seasons. Lorenzo Cain just got five years and $80 million from the Brewers, covering his age 32-36 seasons. Over the past three years, Cain has been worth 13.1 WAR, with Blackmon at 12.9. Cain came with a qualifying offer, and free-agent Blackmon presumably would’ve. In the previous offseason, Dexter Fowler got five years and $82.5 million, covering his age 31-35 seasons. Blackmon’s contract compares well, especially given that there wasn’t competition. He’s signing a full seven or so months away from becoming available.

There’s also another part to this. Here is Blackmon’s year-to-year breakdown:

  • 2019: $21 million
  • 2020: $21 million
  • 2021: $21 million
  • 2022: $21-million player option
  • 2023: $10-million player option, with incentives up to $18 million

We don’t get to write “player option” very much. Usually, with extensions, you see club options instead. But all this is is another way of saying “opt-out clause.” Blackmon can opt out after 2021, or he can opt out after 2022. It’s perfectly fair to wonder how realistic that would be, with Blackmon in his mid-30s by then, but this comes down to being player-friendly language. The player options push more value in Blackmon’s direction, just in case he continues to be a 6-win player or whatever, without decline. This contract doesn’t cap Blackmon’s upside.

It’s interesting to see Blackmon’s side do so well in negotiation. This is a key player the Rockies will retain for a while. Yet it’s no less interesting to think about what Blackmon might have avoided. I don’t just mean the possibility of a disappointing year, that would take the rug out from under Blackmon’s future contract demands. Let’s say Blackmon is good again throughout 2018. He was going to present a fascinating free-agent case. But, given what we just saw in the market, there could’ve been a case held against him.

We’ve all heard about how free agency has changed. Anecdotally, at least, free agency now feels more like arbitration, with suitors telling players everything that’s wrong with them. There’s nothing wrong with teams being critical, of course, because it’s their own money they’re spending, and they want to spend it wisely, but Blackmon could’ve faced an uphill battle. Teams could’ve tried to remind him he’s a 30+ year-old outfielder who doesn’t rate particularly well in center.

And then, more importantly, there’s the Coors Field factor. Like all Rockies hitters, Blackmon has had far more success at home. For his career, his wOBA split is 91 points. His wRC+ split is 31 points. Blackmon, in Colorado, has hit for a way higher BABIP, and he’s also recorded most of his triples. Yet there are the peripherals, too. Blackmon has walked more at home, and he’s made a lot more contact. Since 2015, Blackmon’s strikeout rate at home is lower than his rate on the road by 7.5 percentage points. That’s the biggest difference in baseball. Home Blackmon has walked twice for every three strikeouts. Road Blackmon has walked once for every three strikeouts.

We know that Coors Field messes with peripherals. Park factors are complicated. We also know that teams are smart — teams know what park factors do, and teams know you can’t just look at Colorado hitters’ road numbers alone. You have to consider everything that Blackmon has accomplished, on the road and not on the road. But if Blackmon were a free agent, he’d definitely be hearing about how his numbers might be a mirage. Teams would definitely point out the splits and express their own concern about how he’d perform in another environment. Coors Field does present an irritating variable, sometimes. And teams would use it to try to reduce Blackmon’s cost.

I’ll bring Fowler back up. His case, I think, is instructive. When he was with the Rockies, he had a 113 wRC+ at home, with 19% strikeouts. On the road, he had a 92 wRC+, with 25% strikeouts. What’s happened since then, with Fowler playing in other ballparks? He’s posted a 119 wRC+, with 22% strikeouts. Fowler wasn’t a mirage. He’s sustained his performance, and then some, even as he’s gotten later in his career. Fowler is one data point suggesting you shouldn’t hold Coors Field against Blackmon, but teams would try, anyway. And, in fairness, Fowler is only one player. Blackmon’s splits are somewhat extreme.

Charlie Blackmon knows he can hit in Colorado. He knows he can be very good in Colorado. He probably takes a little more advantage of Coors Field than the average player does, but that’s not a problem — Blackmon and the Rockies benefit from that. In this case, when there’s mutual interest between parties in an extension, I think it only makes sense for Blackmon to re-sign, because all that was facing him was going to be uncertainty. To say nothing of the fact that the coming free-agent market will be loaded. That’s another thing that could’ve kept Blackmon’s price down. But Blackmon would’ve faced uncertainty, and he would’ve faced concern about his performance, based only on where he’s played half his games. Blackmon would’ve faced a market inclined to doubt how good he really is. Oh, he would’ve gotten a job somewhere. And maybe he would’ve ultimately signed for this much, or more. I doubt it. And the process could’ve easily been unpleasant. Teams might’ve tried to play Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, and Andrew McCutchen off of one another. Why deal with that if you don’t have to?

Blackmon has made proper use of Coors Field over his career. No need now to make a change, especially with the Rockies looking competitive enough. From an analytical perspective, it would’ve been nice to have Blackmon’s free agency give us a data point. Blackmon didn’t want to be a data point. He just wanted to be a Rockie.

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.

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6 years ago

I’m hoping this is not the beginning of a trend. The 2019 free agency period was going to be so compelling not solely because of the headliners. But also because of the incredible depth it offered.

6 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I think Blackmon’s a special case because of his age. He didn’t become the fulltime starter until he was 27 and he’s only been this good for the past 2 years. He probably could’ve beaten the AAV in free agency but I don’t blame him for signing a extension that guarantees him $10 million in his age 37 season.

None of this applies to the rest of this offseason’s FA class (except maybe Donaldson), so I don’t really think it’ll set a trend.

6 years ago
Reply to  Eltneg

Donaldson has been pretty consistent about wanting to get to free agency, although he would be a logical person to take the bird in hand. Dozier, Price (opt out), Murphy, Pollock, and McCutchen are the other ones in that age range. Maybe Elvis Andrus doesn’t opt out (if he has another 4-WAR year, he’s probably gone though, he’ll only be 30). Maybe Craig Kimbrel? A lot of the top players will be 30 or over in 2019. You’ll have to wait until 2020 if you want to see lots of young guys hitting the market.

6 years ago
Reply to  Eltneg

His best case scenario was probably something like JD Martinez just got. He just banked like 85% of that guarantee while also getting the two “opt outs / player options”. He’s 2 years older than JDM. Smart.

6 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

It looks like the trend has already begun. Every team will try to use the “Bird in the Hand is Worth Two in the Bush” approach as much as they can. These types of deals appear to be equitable for both sides. I personally think the player, by reason of lifetime security, is a sure winner and the team might also win if the player far exceeds his present level of play. This type of extension is also much less likely to include difficult and contentious negotiations. There have only been a few so far, and this is one of the first for an established star, but I expect to see quite a few more early extensions of players at all points of the spectrum.

6 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

It seems the days of the 7-10 year contract may be over too. Mauer, Cano and Pujols should be thankful for the owner/GM mindset when they hit FA. I think we’ll see a lot more 3-5 year deals for even 29-31 year olds, like we’ll pay you big dollars but not for the high 30s years.

6 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

Mauer never hit free agency, and there are a lot worse things you can do than to give a 27 year-old superstar an 8 year extension. Mauer declined a lot faster than people expected, mostly having to do with being no longer able to catch.

6 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

The concussion issues derailed mauers career, otherwise it would have been a fine deal I’m sure. Cano looks reasonable all in all as well. May not be quite worth it in regards WAR but the butts in seats aspect etc… is worth a lot. Pujols…i really hope he can have one more solid year if not he should retire to a non playing position, doesn’t need the money and he’s genuinely hurting his team’s chances.

6 years ago
Reply to  Trotter76

Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado are all about to get 7+ year contracts