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On Charlie Blackmon and the case for sabermetrics

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We’ve all heard the detractors, but the poster child for the case to be made for advanced stats is right here in Denver.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Sabermetrics pioneer Bill James once defined his area of study as "the search for objective knowledge about baseball."

It's a simple, yet sensible concept, but one that has found itself front and center in the everlasting debate between innovation and traditionalism.

Old stalwarts Harold Reynolds, Hawk Harrelson and Tracy Ringolsby would all but tell you that I should be required to wear tin foil on my head after some of the writing I've put forth on these hallowed pages, while other respected journalists like Jonah Keri -- and organizations (you know, like the Oakland Athletics and Houston Astros) -- have come to embrace sabermetrics for their intended purpose: to better understand the game of baseball.

I won't pretend to be an expert on all things statistical. To be honest, the words you read today are that of a man who only passed collegiate-level math courses by the grace of our Lord and Savior, and all of what I know of sabermetrics has been entirely self-taught. Someone out there is sure to object to the term ‘sabermetrics' or ‘advanced stats' to define some of what will be put forward today, so I apologize in advance.

I've made the effort to learn these stats because I enjoy the challenge of dissecting what a player does and does not do well, how those things have defined or projected their seasons/careers, and what they can do to improve their fortunes. Today they'll be used to explore a player who, by many measures, does not look all that different from the player he was a year ago. Sabermetrics will tell a different story.

That player is Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon.

At this point, there may not be a more analyzed player in baseball than Blackmon. His 173 wRC+ through the first month of the season made him the sixth-best offensive performer in baseball in his first season with guaranteed playing time and a defined everyday role with the major league club.

From there on out, all the talk was about the inevitable regression of Blackmon. An inflated .364 BABIP, a 15.6-percent HR/FB ratio and a suppressed strikeout rate all contributed to Charlie's unsustainable start. Satisfied with their projections and warning signs about Blackmon, most analysts moved on to other things.

But now at the end of July, perhaps Colorado's early breakout player merits another look. After very pedestrian months in May (.718 OPS) and June (.683 OPS), Blackmon was back to being very productive in July, posting an .845 OPS and 120 wRC+.

The result is a season line of .302/.348/.466. To me, this is notable because Blackmon's 2013 line was .309/.336/.467. That is to say, not much different than this season's.

But that is where the crux of this discussion lies. How much different is Charlie Blackmon from the player he was a season ago?

For starters, Blackmon is making contact at a much higher rate, thanks to a two percent decrease in his swinging strike rate this year. When Fangraphs' Eno Sarris caught up with Blackmon back in June, Blackmon cited pitch selection as the key factor in his approach.

To that end, Sarris noted that Blackmon is laying off pitches on the inside half of the plate, especially down in the zone.  But after a second look, I'd contend that the pitch type has been equally essential to Blackmon's success. Observe:

Blackmon_pitch_values_medium

The takeaway here is that Blackmon has done a better job of identifying, and making contact with fastballs than he did in 2013. It's taken his performance against two and four seam fastballs from below average (negative values) to above average and his performance against cutters from good to excellent. Hitting against the slider, Blackmon also remains an above-average hitter. On the other side of things, he has not fared as well this season against the curveball and the changeup, but he's still not below average on either pitch.

The changes have been beneficial to him for a few reasons. The first is a simple numbers game: 56.1 percent of the total pitches that Blackmon has seen this year have been two seam, four seam, or cut fastballs. Adding sliders into that mix brings the total percentage up to 69.3 percent. The two pitches he's ‘sacrificed' performance on represent less than 22 percent of the total pitches he sees.

It becomes even more important when you factor in that Blackmon is making contact with the ball at an 87.2-percent clip, the 23rd highest mark in baseball and a full eight percent higher than the league average.

There are certainly other tangible factors contributing to Blackmon's breakout year, but to spare you a dissertation-length entry here, I'm willing to chalk the differences for Blackmon this season up to pitch selection, contact rate, and let's face it, favorable home park conditions (.953 OPS at home, .634 on the road) and a certain amount of luck.

As you recall, the title of this piece suggested that Chuck Nazty was the poster boy for the case for advanced stats in baseball, so there's one more point to be made to that end. Once again for the sake of comparison:

2013: .309/.336/.467

2014: .302/.348/.466

In the days of yesteryear, we'd look at those numbers and say that Blackmon's value has only marginally improved over last season, if at all. But let's look at what the offensive catch-alls have to say. For reference:

Blackmon_catch-alls_medium

Blackmon's wOBA of .355 qualifies him as 40th best in the majors. Last season, if he'd had enough at bats to qualify, his .350 mark would've put him 46th. But, wRAA is based on wOBA and is more kind to Charlie this season than last. A 14.0 wRAA in 2014 ranks him 38th in baseball in 2014, whereas his 7.4 mark from 2013 would've placed him 79th.

Similarly, wRC has Blackmon listed as 34th in the majors at 60, alongside such names as Matt Holliday, Brett Gardner and Marlon Byrd. His 36 last year would've put him 139th in baseball, just behind the notoriously terrible Mike Moustakas. Obviously the extra 150-plus plate appearances that Blackmon has accumulated already this season over last year are going to inflate those numbers some, but in terms of counting stats and league ranks, we're talking about a player who is producing at roughly twice the rate of last season's iteration of himself in about one-third more at bats. Still plenty of improvement there that some of the more traditional numbers are prone to miss.

If sabermetrics are the search for objective knowledge about baseball, then Charlie Blackmon's 2013 and 2014 seasons are exactly the kind of reason why we need such a thing.

Twenty years ago Blackmon would've been dismissed as a guy whose entire offensive skill set is based on good contact skills, but the numbers today tell a very different story.

. . .

All statistics and tables courtesy of FanGraphs.

Zach Fogg is a columnist for Purple Row, Beyond the Box Score and Mile High Sports. You can follow him on Twitter at @zachfoggsports.