Most of the time, when we talk about Colorado Rockies outfielders involved in trade rumors, we’re talking about Carlos Gonzalez. There’s another Rockies outfielder worth discussing now and again, however, and that’s Charlie Blackmon, whose name was recently tied to the Nationals.
In some ways, Blackmon is a more appealing trade target than Gonzalez. He’s the truer center fielder of the two; he comes with an additional season of team control; and he would make $21 million over the next two years if he received a 100 percent raise in each of his remaining arbitration hearings — Gonzalez, comparably, will make $20 million in 2017. Granted, Gonzalez is the better player, and both team control and surplus value have crossed the point of fetishization publicly . . . but that obsession seems to have extended to front offices, so you can’t ignore them.
Blackmon makes for an even more interesting player on the field than in the board room: a center fielder with good bat-to-ball skills who has consistently been an average-to-above-average hitter. Yet the most impressive aspect of Blackmon’s game — besides his beard — is how he’s served as the white crow who proves players can improve their plate discipline in the majors.
Baseball people have long debated whether a hitter can better his approach. Some believe it can be done with age and experience — or, um, the acceptance of one’s limitations, basically — while others think it has to do with innate neurological components that can make you sound like a total creep if you talk about them too loud and/or with too much conviction. Whatever determines a player’s strike-zone management, Blackmon has found a way to hone his over the last year-plus.
Blackmon’s walk rate is the best evidence. He’s on pace to walk more often for a third consecutive season, and that change seems rooted in an insultingly simple decision to swing less. Whereas Blackmon used to offer at the first pitch in more than a quarter of his plate appearances, he’s now around the eight-percent mark, making him the qualified hitter least likely to swing at the first one he sees. That newfound patience has left him with a leaner swing rate, particularly on in-zone pitches, as well an incrementally better chase rate — suggesting it’s not all passivity’s doing.
They’ll start force-feeding the batter strikes; he’ll find himself in more negative counts; he’ll start striking out more and making quality contact less; and then he finds himself in an awkward spot where he has to decide if he should revert to his old approach or risk getting overpowered all the way to the minors.
That isn’t to suggest Blackmon’s game comes without concern. Even acknowledging that most players hit better at their home parks than on the road, it’s hard to overlook the disparity in Blackmon’s production at Coors (career .885 OPS) versus away (.677). Stare at those numbers too long, and you’ll begin spitballing as to why he might benefit more than the normal Rockie — like, perhaps, his high-contact ways play better in a spacious field? That’s just theory, though, so let’s get back to the facts: he probably needs to sit against tough same-handed pitching: his .729 OPS against lefties is less-than-ideal before the Coors inflation aspect is considered.
Those blemishes will get nitpicked to their second death in the coming weeks, but Blackmon’s upside — a cost-effective, multi-year center-field solution who can hit leadoff most days — practically guarantees someone will toss a nickel in the well then make the leap, hoping a net will appear below. Given that Blackmon has already done something more radical than learning how to hit away from Coors Field, there’s no sense betting against him making things work.