I can’t make up my mind about Charlie Blackmon. Since the start of 2014, my dominant view has drifted from "interesting" to "kind of awesome" to "flukish" to "fluke" and now back to "interesting." He’s currently compelling for a couple of reasons. The first is that Blackmon is having a better 2015 than his All-Star worthy 2014. The second is that his improvement, at least on offense, can be attributed to some clear adjustments at the plate that indicate he’s actually a better baseball player today than he was a year ago. Namely, he's employed a more patient approach at the plate, and the results are showing up in his on base ability as well as his overall batting profile.
Blackmon earned a spot in the 2014 All-Star game due to an incredible April. He had an OPS of 1.650 and hit 72 percent above league average, represented by a wRC+ of 172. Blackmon noticeably and naturally regressed from those lofty heights and was a below average hitter in May and June. He OPS’d over 1.000 again in July and September, but an awful August dampened Blackmon’s second half numbers. In the first half, he slashed .305/.349/.479 for a wRC+ of 115. In the second half, Blackmon’s slash line was .264/.314/.384, contributing to a 78 wRC+. Taken together—and the halves must be taken together—Blackmon was the definition of average at the plate in 2014. His 100 wRC+ was the result of a .288/.334/.440 line with a 100 wRC+.
That’s all pretty well known. But there’s another split in Blackmon’s game that we have to pay attention to, and it helps us recognize his 2015 improvements. During the first half of 2014, Blackmon had a 5.5 percent walk rate and a 12.8 percent strike out rate. In the second half, he walked 3.8 percent of the time and struck out 17.8 percent of the time. Intuitively, Blackmon was more productive when he walked more and struck out less.
During 2015's first half, he's walked more than he did during 2014's first half slate. Blackmon’s first half batting line in 2015 is about as good as his 2014 first half, but it's more believable and seemingly more sustainable because his walk rate has improved. First, the line: Blackmon slashed .291/.360/.463 with a wRC+ of 113 in the first half of 2015. His on base percentage and slugging average best his final figures from 2015. Compared to the first half of 2014, he’s getting on base more but hitting with a tick less power. Most significantly, Blackmon’s walk rate has jumped to 7.4 percent, which is about league average. His strikeout rate also increased to 17.1 percent, but that figure is still better than the league.
It’s not an accident. Blackmon told Purple Row that he made a conscious decision in spring training to see more pitches. He wanted to become comfortable "hitting deep in counts." Blackmon wasn’t always relaxed in such situations, and for good reason. At the highest level of competition, Blackmon suggested, players "can’t afford to take pitches" and give the best pitchers in the world "strike one." Through maturation and work, Blackmon is now more comfortable hitting deep in counts. And it’s paying off.
The numbers bear out what Blackmon said. His PITCHf/x plate discipline (from FanGraphs) figures show Blackmon's changed approach. First, Blackmon is chasing less and he's not in a hurry to swing the bat. Blackmon isn’t swinging at as many balls outside of the zone, and he’s also not swinging at as many pitches inside of the zone either. Second, despite swinging a lot less, Blackmon's contact rate has decreased only slightly. This is evidence of Blackmon being more selective at the plate. The balls he's missing that are outside of the strike zone might be the pitches he previously attacked so as not to put himself in a hole. Now, they're working for him. Additionally, Blackmon's contact rate for balls inside of the zone has increased.
The result is a batter who is swinging at fewer pitches but making the same amount of contact as before. He’s taking more walks because of it, and he’s also making better contact as a result. According to FanGraphs’ subjective quality of contact measures, Blackmon’s soft contact rate has decreased from 21.1 percent in 2014 to 12.6 percent in 2015. His medium and hard hit percentages have also increased from 50.3 and 28.4 percent to 52.2 and 35.0 percent, respectively.
Another way of saying all that is that Charlie Blackmon’s eye at the plate has gotten better, he’s become more patient, and he’s translating that improved approach into better production. And another way of saying that is that Charlie Blackmon is a better baseball player in 2015 than he was in 2014—All-Star Game appearance be damned.
When previously reviewing Blackmon’s 2014, I was fond of pointing out that after April, Blackmon played almost exactly to his median projections. My essential point was that if you take out April, Blackmon actually had a below average season, which is what the projections said he would be. I was wrong about that. First, why would you take April out? Was it not part of the season? That phrase (if you take out…) is often evoked to highlight a player or team’s essential quality. But what it really does is turn a component of the whole into an essential quality. That was my mistake. Projection systems account for ups and downs when producing a median line. So if you take out any part of it, you’re either cherry picking or modifying the projection.
Right now, we have a complete view of Charlie Blackmon’s first half of 2015. Unparsed, it sure looks like he’s made real improvements at the plate that explain his improved batting line. Whether or not he can maintain this profile as the first half turns to the second will help provide a more complete picture of one of the Rockies' most interesting players.