There are still 93 days until the Rockies open the 2015 season (on April 6; against the Milwaukee Brewers; at Miller Park; at 12:10 p.m. MT; 93 days), but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be questions about what the Opening Day roster is going to look like. You only have to peruse back a few days here on Purple Row to see how much attention the community is giving to the catcher situation.
At this time last year, center field was the talk of Rockies-town. That talk continued to Opening Day, when the Rockies announced that they planned to carry six outfielders. Ultimately, Drew Stubbs was the team’s primary center fielder, which was considered a possibility throughout the offseason and spring training. What is most interesting, however, is what happened to two of the other players in contention for roster spots: Charlie Blackmon and Corey Dickerson. We know what happened with Blackmon. Him, his torrid April, and his fluffy beard won playing time. Below, I try to answer the following questions: how was the center field battle portrayed prior to and during Spring Training and who was given the upper hand? How much playing time did Charlie Blackmon’s April buy him in the end, and are there any lessons we can draw from the playing time he earned?
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Dec. 14, 2013: After the Dexter Fowler trade, Thomas Harding of mlb.com reported that Carlos Gonzalez was to move from left field to center field for the 2014 season. Gonzalez told Harding that he was "excited." Harding, however, noted the toll playing center field might have on CarGo’s body. Gonzalez simply responded that playing left field at Coors is similar to playing center field elsewhere. He was ready for the move. At the time, this left an expected outfield alignment of Michael Cuddyer in right field, CarGo in center field, and either Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, or Brandon Barnes in right field.
Dec. 18, 2013: Troy Renck, erstwhile Rockies beat writer for the Denver Post, tweeted the Rockies acquired Drew Stubbs for Josh Outman.
Confirmed.. Rockies getting Stubbs. Indians get Josh Outman...— Troy Renck (@TroyRenck) December 18, 2013
At first blush, the move seemed to indicate that Brandon Barnes would serve as minor league depth for the season, and that Stubbs would be the right side of a left field platoon with either Blackmon or Dickerson. Indeed, Drew Creasman praised the move for the depth it added to the roster.
Feb. 22, 2014: Troy Renck reported that Carlos Gonzalez would remain in left field, which changed the nature of the playing time competition. The question was easy when the question was left field. Stubbs would be the right side of a platoon with either Blackmon or Dickerson. When the question became about center field, defensive ability became more important, which meant that Brandon Barnes reentered the conversation and was now in competition with Stubbs, Blackmon, and Dickerson. The player who seemed to be most hurt by the move happened to also be regarded as the hitter with the highest ceiling, Corey Dickerson.
Feb. 23: Drew Creasman wrote that the new center field competition also raised questions regarding who would hit lead-off. Drew noted that it was questionable whether any of the "candidates will be able to get on base enough to justify leading off." And he encapsulated the platoon problem when he observed that the two best hitters (Blackmon and Dickerson) were lefties, while the two best fielders (Barnes and Stubbs) were righties. Identifying the quandary that the two best hitters are lefties and the two best fielders righties.
Feb. 26: Jeff Aberle took stock of the outfield situation as spring training was getting underway. Like Drew, Jeff worried about Stubbs as a lead-off candidate due to his career .310 OBP. He conceded that Stubbs might have an advantage because of his major league experience. Again, Dickerson appeared to be the odd-man out. While Blackmon’s defense was not regarded as highly as Stubbs’s or Barnes’s, he was considered a superior defender when compared to Dickerson.
March 11: Bryan Kilpatrick asked: "How are the roster battles playing out?" Bryan looked at the information available in the first weeks of spring training. At the time, Dickerson was eight-for-22 with a home run, a walk, four extra base hits and a strikeout. Blackmon was five-for-23 with a walk and three extra base hits. Stubbs was just three-for-16 with a walk and seven strikeouts.
March 29: Jordan Freemyer described the center field situation as a "battle that hasn’t ended." In fact, Jordan noted that the contested position had the same four possibilities as on Feb. 22. Indeed, it was known at this time that the competition would continue into the regular season, as the team announced that it planned to carry six outfielders: the four possible center fielders, Gonzalez, and Cuddyer. "My best guess," Jordan wrote, "is that either Barnes or Blackmon is optioned when Logan comes off the DL and the other is sent down if/when the need for another infielder presents itself."
March 31-April 3: The Rockies opened the season with a four-game series against the Miami Marlins. Charlie Blackmon started games one and three in center field, and he led off both of those games. He had three hits in 10 at-bats with one walk. All three of his hits were singles. He served as a pinch hitter in games two and four. Corey Dickerson started in center field and lead off the second game of the series. He pinch hit in the other three games. In all, Dickerson went one-for-six with a single and a walk. Notably, Drew Stubbs served as a defensive replacement for Dickerson in the eighth inning. Drew Stubbs started in center field and lead off the second game of the series. He didn’t reach base in six plate appearances. Brandon Barnes started in right field and hit seventh for game four of the series. Like Stubbs, he didn’t reach base in six plate appearances.
April 4: The only thing the Miami series clarified was that center field was still up in the air. Blackmon started the most games, but it was still just two of the four. But then the team returned to Coors Field for the home opener, and Blackmon—who started in center field and lead off—went and had a six-hit game that included three doubles and a home run. On April 4, Thomas Harding hinted at what came to pass. After Blackmon’s historic day, Harding wrote that "needless to say, he will get more chances at the top of the lineup. Not bad for a guy who was perched precariously atop the roster bubble for most of Spring Training." Blackmon entered the game with three hits and ten at bats and finished it with nine hits in 16. "Now with Blackmon 9-16," Harding said, "[Walt] Weiss is fielding questions about not whether Blackmon makes it, but whether he has earned everyday starts in center." A single game seemed to settle the months-long question. Blackmon started and lead off in 20 of the remaining 24 games in April.
April 7: Bryan Kilpatrick indicates that Corey Dickerson was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs after the activation of Boone Logan. Bryan observed that this was not such a bad thing because it meant that Dickerson would get regular plate appearances. He wasn’t going to get them
April 15: Bryan Kilpatrick wrote that the Rockies recalled Corey Dickerson to replace Brett Anderson, who was headed to the disabled list. Nominally, the Rockies had six outfielders again, but Bryan also reported that Michael Cuddyer was listed as day-to-day after running into the outfield wall. Dickerson was up for good at this point, and his brief stint in the minors represented the only instance throughout the season that any of Stubbs, Barnes, Blackmon, and Dickerson was demoted.
April 18: The first of Michael Cuddyer’s three extensive stays on the disabled list, which ensured a big league roster spot for Dickerson.
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What nobody proposed, but what most probably at least considered a possibility, was that Corey Dickerson would end up as the team’s primary left fielder (56 percent of innings), Drew Stubbs the primary center fielder (58 percent), and that a platoon of Charlie Blackmon and Brandon Barnes would constitute the majority of right field innings (67 percent). And I’d guess that few expected Blackmon to accrue the most playing time of anybody on the team. Blackmon had the third most plate appearances on the team in April, the most in each month from May to July, the second most in August, and the most in September. Blackmon finished with 98 more plate appearances than the second most on the team, Justin Morneau, and Blackmon went to the plate 170 more times than Corey Dickerson. Not only that, but when Blackmon was in the starting lineup, he hit lead off 100 percent of the time—and all of this despite being the sixth best hitter on the team in 2014 according to wRC+ (min. 350 plate appearances).
While injuries to Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez played a key role in the distribution of playing time in the outfield, I am convinced that Blackmon’s historic six-for-six day was the central factor in how that playing time was distributed. If Blackmon had a six-for-six day on May 4 instead of April 4, the season would have turned out differently. At Rockies Zingers a few weeks ago, I showed that from the final day that Blackmon had a batting average above .400, April 27, to the end of the season, his batting line was almost exactly what Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projection system forecasted as the median: he hit .269/.314/.401, while PECOTA predicted he would hit .266/.320/.398.
Now heading into 2015, we know more about each of the players in question. Interestingly enough, a lot has remained the same. In an outfield that we expect to include Carlos Gonzalez on opening day, Brandon Barnes should serve as minor league depth. Corey Dickerson, always considered the inferior defender but the best bat, should man left field. We are also now assuming that center field will be a platoon consisting of Stubbs and Blackmon. Right now, I see this as a weakness. In 2014, Blackmon was utilized as a roaming fourth outfielder who happened to start most games due to injuries to others. He played 47.8 percent of his innings in right field, 42.8 percent in center field, and most of the rest in left field. One thing we didn’t learn in 2014 is whether or not Blackmon is suited to be the strong side of a center field platoon. But if 2014 did teach us anything, it is not to assume that we’re going to find out in 2015, even if that’s the intent.