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Charlie Blackmon keeps defying expectations

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Charlie Blackmon’s career year puts the Rockies in an interesting position this offseason.

Milwaukee Brewers v Colorado Rockies Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The book on Charlie Blackmon was that he was an average center fielder. Far from being an insult, it reflected just how valuable a player who consistently put up solid numbers from the center field position is. When you consider he had little prospect pedigree coming up through the minors, average is a minor miracle. After his first breakout season in 2014, he improved his approach last year to deliver a nice power-speed combo at the top of the Rockies order. But still, he was average, and that was a-okay.

Blackmon took the “average” label and shattered it in 2016. Not only did he set career bests in traditional counting stats like hits (187), home runs (29), runs (111), and runs batted in (82), but he also had his best season in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage (.324/.381/.552). His isolated power of .228 bested his previous career high by 65 points. In 2016 he finished top ten in the National League in extra-base hits (ninth), singles (seventh), and offensive bWAR (eighth), and finished top five in the league in slugging and OPS (fifth), average (fourth) and and runs scored (third). He also won National League Player of the Week twice and took home his first career Silver Slugger award last week. Really, you could make a compelling argument that he was the second-best centerfielder in baseball.

Having a guy who can threaten 30 home runs in a season at the top of your lineup is great, especially when he is getting on base at an extraordinary .381 clip. When that guy is coming off a 43 steal season, managers begin to drool. So why did Charlie steal just 17 bases and have a 65 percent success rate? One factor is Charlie had fewer stolen base opportunities than either of the past two years; when you’re hitting your way to second base (or home), you don’t need to steal as often. Another factor is his approach to baserunning. Blackmon told me last year, “I need to keep my aggressiveness up but also make good decisions, like ‘Is this the right time to be running? Is this going to help us win the game?’”

But to reduce Blackmon’s baserunning contributions to just his base stealing is to miss a large portion of his contribution. Case in point: he was able to take the extra base 53 percent of the time, an exceptional rate (league-average is 40 percent). For example, of the 12 times he was on first when a double was hit, he scored ten times, the second-most in baseball. This kind of skill is important when you’re hitting in front of a lineup as talented as the Rockies.

2017 Outlook

Charlie Blackmon is either the most valuable trade chip the Rockies have or the key to their success in 2017, depending on your perspective. General manager Jeff Bridich has stated that he intends to improve the team but he’s “hopeful that doesn't have to come at the expense of players like Carlos Gonzalez or Charlie Blackmon." Coming off what will surely be his career season, Blackmon has a lot of value on the trade market as a centerfielder who can hit and run the bases from the leadoff position. Add in the fact he’s under team control for another two season and it’s no wonder contending teams seem intent to pry him away from Denver. On the other hand, even if Charlie can give the Rockies something like 80 percent of his 2016 production over the next few years, he would be just as valuable sticking around for this team, whose time for contention seems to be now.