Welcome to the 2017 edition of Ranking the Rockies, where we take a look back at the in-season contributions of every player to don the purple this past season. The goal wasn’t and isn’t to quibble with order. Instead, it’s to get a snapshot of a player along with a look forward. For that reason, we simply sorted by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) and will start at the bottom and end up at the top.
No. 2, Charlie Blackmon (6.0 rWAR)
To truly appreciate how good Charlie Blackmon has been and how important he is to the Colorado Rockies, it’s helpful to think from the future. Blackmon will be a site of wistful nostalgia, one day. He’s part of a cohort of Rockies players that comprise a bona fide era in team history. Blackmon is the best center fielder the team has ever had, and his prime overlaps with DJ LeMahieu and Nolan Arenado, the best second baseman and third baseman in Rockies’ history, respectively. This group will be remembered just as fondly as the original Blake Street Bombers and the Todd and the Toddlers cast that grew into National League pennant winners. Blackmon is a big part of this era, and his 2017 season will live as a new high bar for Rockies’ centerfielders.
Let’s start with the black ink. Blackmon led the NL in plate appearances with 725. That accomplishment is a testament to his durability, as is the 159 games he played. Blackmon led the league in hits with 213. He didn’t waste those chances at the plate, either, as he became the first Rockies player since 2007 to get more than 200 hits in a single season. Blackmon led the NL with a .331 batting average. Just in case the thought crossed your mind that all those hits were just a product of all those plate appearances, his average was the best in the NL. Blackmon led the NL in runs scored with 137. He needed help to get home most of the time, but getting on base ins pretty important to scoring all those runs. Blackmon’s 387 total bases led the NL. All those hits to put himself on base to score all those runs also included quite a few extra base hits. Blackmon led the NL in triples with 14. Okay this one’s random and doesn’t tell us much, but black ink is black ink.
Those are just the categories Blackmon led the league. It doesn’t even mention his continued growth with zone awareness. Blackmon is a studious hitter with an excellent work ethic. These descriptions are often considered squishy and unquantifiable; however, we can at least draw some correlation between Blackmon’s approach and his growth as a hitter. Blackmon had a pretty good 2014 season, but he had a poor walk rate—4.8%. In 2015, he simply decided not to swing as much in an effort to see more pitches and maybe walk more. It paid off, as his walk rate jumped two percentage points to 6.7%. Blackmon’s 2016 walk rate remained the same, but his zone awareness continued to improve, which is evident in the fact that he took a significant leap as a hitter. Incredibly, he got even better in 2017, as his walk rate jumped to 9% and he got even better at the plate.
Blackmon has simply gotten better as a player every season since 2014, his first full year. And it’s no accident.
With all the black ink and individual growth, it’s pretty clear Blackmon had a spectacular season. It looks even better if we take a step back and look at it in terms of Rockies’ history. We’re ranking the Rockies based on rWAR, and Blackmon comes in second overall with 6.0. Blackmon’s 2017 was just the tenth time in Rockies history a regular outfielder posted a season with at least 5.0 rWAR.
Two major things stick out from this chart. First, five of the 10 seasons are owned by Larry Walker. If we think of this in terms of player instead of season, Blackmon became just the fifth regular outfielder to post 5.0 rWAR or more in a single season. The other major takeaway is that Blackmon is the only player on the chart who did while primarily playing center field. Carlos González got reps in center in 2010, but, like Holliday, Burks, and Walker, he mostly played the corners.
That’s to say: Blackmon’s 2017 was the best center field season in Rockies history.
Saying that Blackmon likely peaked in 2017 is not only natural, but is also more than likely correct. It’s hard to replicate a best in team history season, for obvious reasons. And yet, Blackmon has been getting better every season since 2014, so it’s hard to discount that possibility entirely. At the very least, it’s safe to say that the Rockies will be able to rely on Blackmon as a durable leadoff hitter and centerfielder who is going to contribute a lot at the plate. He’ll be crucial to the Rockies’ success in 2018. And, given his history, the Rockies and Rockies fans have to feel pretty good about the team with Blackmon on it.
The more pressing question about Blackmon has to do with what comes after 2018. Blackmon is entering his final year of arbitration, and he’s set to be a free agent after the season. Blackmon has made himself into one of the premier outfielders in the NL, so if the Rockies want to sign him to a long-term deal, they’re going to have to pay quite a lot to do so. He’ll be 31 in 2018 and 32 heading into free agency, but Blackmon can still expect to get, at least, four years and $100 million in free agency. If the Rockies want to lock up both Arenado and Blackmon, it’s not crazy to think that they’ll need to commit around $400 million.
It may be worth it in a baseball sense. Blackmon is getting older, like all of us, but he might be able to manage aging better than other players due to his excellent work ethic and studiousness. And from the perspective of keeping Blackmon around to play more years with Arenado in this as yet unnamed era in Rockies history? That could be priceless.