It’s been observed before we don’t write that much about the Rockies. Now, this is one of those things that works both ways — we could probably stand to write about them more, but there also hasn’t been much in the way of demand. Mostly, I’d say it’s the Rockies’ fault, since people want to read about and write about winners. The Rockies haven’t won. When we have written about them, many of the posts have been examining that.
But I can say this much: For the first time in years, I like where the Rockies are headed. The sense I get is they’re close to a return to being competitive. Over the past month or two, I’ve been paying the Rockies extra attention out of curiosity, and that’s given me reason to write now about Charlie Blackmon. I know this year’s Rockies aren’t going to the playoffs. I know Blackmon’s will never be a household name. But the guy just won the National League player of the week award. He also leads all players in WAR in the half-month of August. So far this month, Blackmon has out-homered the Astros, and his surge has come from zeroing in on a hot spot.
That’s a towering home run, and that’s a two-strike home run, but most importantly for these purposes, that’s a home run off a low pitch. Blackmon now is up to a career-high 21 home runs. He’s running a career-high ISO, and a career-high wRC+, which has led him to a career-high WAR. At 30 years old, Blackmon might be a little late for a traditional breakout, but not everyone has to follow the usual curve. Here’s how Blackmon has aged, in terms of putting batted balls on the ground:
There is a definite downward trend. Blackmon, also, swings less than he used to — as he’s matured, he’s gotten more selective. That is what typically happens with experience, so that doesn’t make Blackmon exceptional, but what he’s done is focused on the lower part of the zone. That’s where he’s decided he can do the most damage, and this year’s results are terrific.
I’ll borrow, as usual, from Baseball Savant. And I’ve honed in on the bottom third of the strike zone. A year ago, in that area, Blackmon produced an average exit velocity of 90.5 miles per hour. This year, in the same area, he’s produced an average exit velocity of 96.3 miles per hour. There are a few different ways to underscore what that means. Here’s one way: That’s the biggest improvement for anyone with at least 50 tracked batted balls in the area in each of the last two years. As an alternative, Blackmon went from ranking in the 28th percentile to ranking in the 89th percentile. Overall, his batted balls haven’t gotten significantly quicker, but they have down low. It’s where Blackmon can make the best use of his swing path.
Oh, is there ever more! If you look at slugging percentage instead of exit velocity, then, against pitches down low, Blackmon has moved from the 65th percentile to the 99th. He’s dropped his low-strike grounder rate from 46% to 37%. If you look at how players have done against various pitch types, Blackmon is tied for third in baseball in runs above average against sinkers and two-seamers. Josh Donaldson’s in first, but Blackmon is within spitting distance. It’s safe to say he knows his strength, and it’s also safe to say he’s trying not to stray very far from it.
As a hitter, of course, you can’t just not pay attention to other pitches. You have to swing against what you’re given, and sometimes Blackmon just doesn’t get anything in his happy place. He’s not an all-zones power type — he doesn’t have Miguel Cabrera-level plate coverage. But there’s nothing wrong with having a preference, as Brian Dozier could attest to. There’s obvious power, and there’s selective power, and Blackmon has the latter. He’s showing this season — and especially this month — how much you can do when you improve your selectivity. Pitchers are inclined to want to work a hitter low, especially in Colorado. Blackmon has just been waiting for his chances.
He doesn’t strike out much, even on the road. His walks are on the upswing, in part because pitchers are taking him more seriously. That’s happening because Blackmon is putting more balls in the air, and he’s striking them with better authority when he sees something he likes. With power, Blackmon checks all the boxes. There’s no one area where he is outstanding, but he contributes across the board, giving him everything he needs to be an underrated regular. He’s underrated because of where he plays, and he’s underrated because of how he plays. Before, Charlie Blackmon was a perfectly acceptable everyday outfielder. Now that he’s found his hot spot, he’s turning into something more than that. He’s turning into a reason why the 2017 Rockies could be a team worth your attention. The talk will be about the young pitching staff, but there’s no reason to simply stop there.
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.